How many times have you heard someone ask, “Why do most healthy foods taste so bad?”
It’s a too often repeated declaration that a food that is “healthy” does not taste good, and that junk food is so good. But choosing foods that are rich in umami taste can help change that perception.
Umami as we know is one of the five types of tastes along with salt, sweet, sour and bitter. Described as having an inherent savoriness, umami taste makes food craveable.
Glutamate (glutamic acid, an amino acid that is part of many proteins) is responsible for creating the umami taste. The natural levels of glutamate in food vary greatly, but are high in common foods such as cheese, milk, mushrooms, meat, fish, and many vegetables. It is important to note that there are two forms of glutamate found in foods: bound and free. Only free glutamate is effective in enhancing the flavor of food. Fermenting, cooking, aging and drying foods increase the free glutamate content, and heighten the umami taste.
Here are 10 amazing tasting, flavorful, high glutamate containing foods that also provide additional nutritional and health benefits. (Free glutamate content is expressed in milligrams per 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of food product.)
Seaweed is high in fiber, contains a wide range of vitamins and minerals, including iodine, iron, and calcium, plus heart-healthy omega-3s. Not used to cooking with seaweed? You can purchase it in small snack packs, simple to carry for a crunchy umami-rich snack. Try crumbling some on popcorn, or a sprinkle on your avocado toast for layers of flavor. Depending on the type of seaweed, glutamate levels are between 500 to 3300 mg per/100 grams.
Green tea contains a significant amount of glutamate, which provides the sweet notes of the beverage. The highest source of glutamate comes from premium green tea leaves grown in the shade, while roasted green tea leaf varieties have reduced levels of glutamate. Research on green tea’s many compounds, especially catechins, have demonstrated the beneficial effects of green tea on cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk profiles. Use green tea instead of black to make your summer iced tea. Toss in some crushed mint, lemon balm or citrus slices to create a refreshing beverage. Green tea contains 220-670 mg/100 grams of glutamate.
Soybeans are a good source of fiber, iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and B vitamins. They also contain all nine essential amino acids, providing a complete protein package. Soybeans are available in products such as tofu, soy sauce and miso. Try edamame which are whole, immature soybeans. They are usually sold frozen, encased in their pods (which are not eaten). Heat the pods a few minutes by boiling, steaming or microwaving. Sprinkled with a little salt, edamame is a tasty and nutritious snack, and fun to eat. Simply squeeze or bite the pods, and the beans easily pop into your mouth. Soybeans contain 70-80 mg/100 grams of glutamate.
Tomatoes are a great source of vitamin C, potassium, folate, and vitamin K. Usually red when mature; they also come in a variety of cool colors, including yellow, orange, pink, maroon, green and purple, streaked and striped, and practically black, which provides a lot of eye appeal. As tomatoes ripen, glutamate levels increase, providing a boost to the umami flavor. Processing tomatoes into sauce, paste, ketchup or sun-dried significantly increases the glutamate content. Tuck in a baggie of cherry tomatoes in your lunch to provide both a nutrition pop and a flavor pop. Tomatoes contain 150-250 mg of free glutamate/100 grams while sundried tomatoes have 650-1140 mgs.
Beef supplies 10 essential nutrients including B-vitamins, zinc, selenium and iron. An excellent source of protein, one 3 oz. cooked serving provides about of half of the Daily Value for protein. Look for beef cuts with the word “round” or “loin” in the name, such as top round steak or top sirloin, for the leanest cuts. Beef contains both glutamate and inosinate. Inosinate is a ribonucleotide which also helps impart the umami flavor. For summer time grilling, it is hard to beat a burger (made of 95% lean hamburger) topped with umami-rich ketchup. Beef contains 10 mg of glutamate and 80 mg of inosinate/100 grams.
Mushrooms are fat-free, low-sodium, low-calorie, and cholesterol-free. They contain a variety of nutrients including fiber, selenium, potassium and selenium. Mushrooms are also a source of B vitamins riboflavin, folate, thiamine, pantothenic acid, and niacin. Shitake mushrooms are often used in Asian cooking. Shitake mushrooms provide a good example of how drying can significantly increase the glutamate content of a food, thus increasing the umami flavor. Fresh, they contain 70 mg free glutamate/100 grams. The dried form, however, contains 1060 mg/100 grams.
Carbs are getting a bad rap these days, and carbohydrate rich white potatoes are included in that criticism. In actuality potatoes are low in calories — a medium-sized baked potato contains only about 110 calories. It’s when it is fried, or smothered in butter or sour cream that you have to watch the additional calories from the fat. They are a good source of vitamins C and B6, manganese, phosphorus, and potassium. Widely consumed, and a dietary staple in many countries, the nutrients they provide is important to populations worldwide. An advantage is that a potato is also versatile, lending itself to many different ways of preparation. Used in soup or stews, potatoes’ glutamate is released, contributing to an umami rich dish. The levels of naturally occurring glutamate range from 30-100 mgs/100 grams.
Walnuts have been linked with heart health in many studies. People with higher walnut consumption have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, with improved cardiovascular risk factors and lower rates of cardiovascular disease. It may be the types of oils in walnuts — polyunsaturated fatty acids, and alpha-linolenic and linoleic acids — which may have anti-inflammatory effects that keep blood vessels healthy. Before tossing the walnuts into salads, toast the walnuts to bring out that “nutty” flavor. Walnuts have 658 mg of free glutamate/100 grams.
Human (Mother’s) Milk
Encourage and support breast feeding. Breast milk is the ideal food for infants as it contains live antibodies from the mother that help fight off viruses and bacteria, protecting babies from illnesses. Breast milk provides abundant and easily absorbed nutritional components, antioxidants, enzymes, and immune properties. Studies show that in the long term, breastfed infants are less likely to become overweight or obese later in life. Human breast milk is very rich in free glutamate. In fact, it contains 22 mg/100 grams of free glutamate compared to only 2 mg/100 grams in cows’ milk.
Condiments and food seasonings, such as Worcestershire, Sazón (a staple of Latin cooking), soy sauce, MSG, and of course, ketchup are high in free glutamate, providing that rich umami taste. It’s not saying these seasonings are as nutrient-rich as the products mentioned above. Their benefits lie in that they add an umami element to food, making healthy foods even more enjoyable to eat. A few examples: Use Worcestershire as a secret ingredient in soups; Sazón to add a Latin flavor to roasts; splash soy sauce on your green vegetables; sprinkle MSG on your scrambled eggs and other protein dishes; and ketchup on, especially for kids, well… just about everything.