I recently attended the first World Umami Forum in NYC. I was outside on a break, and a man not attending the event saw my ID tag and out of the blue, said, “I love umami. It’s my favorite flavor.”
Would he have said that “MSG” was his favorite flavor? Probably not, but he could have. MSG – specifically the “G”, for “glutamate” – is what’s responsible for the powerful appeal of umami flavor.
As a registered dietitian nutritionist (and also as a “foodie” of sorts), I have two interests in umami. First, I want people to eat a healthy diet. I also want them (and myself) to enjoy what they eat, because enjoyment is the only way to sustain healthful eating. Umami – and therefore glutamate – has a huge role to play in keeping us motivated to enjoy eating well.
Do You “Mind” Eating?
Most people love eating – if they love WHAT they’re eating. Mindful eating, eating more mindfully, means purposefully, not impulsively, and with an awareness of physical hunger and fullness rather than psychological hunger, has been associated with healthier eating but also more enjoyable eating.
One of the most powerful presentations at the World Umami Forum was made by Dr. Kumiko Ninomiya, Director of the Umami Information Center. She gave us tastes of three vegetable broths, each prepared by simmering, not even boiling, the veggies for 20 minutes. I know veggie broth may not be your idea of a delicious food, but hold on.
The first one was just the broth from boiled veggies and a little salt. The result was OK, but not flavorful enough to want regularly.
The next broth was the same but with a small addition of MSG. The result was fantastic. It tasted “meaty” even though it was just simmered veggies. Why? Umami, a.k.a. the addition of glutamate. The third broth went even further to include inosinate, also found in nature (many fish and meat, some vegetables) and works synergistically with glutamate to heighten the umami taste experience. I really wanted more of the umami broths. They tasted that good.
Umami: Your Mojo for Mindful Eating
As a health professional, I look for a “win-win.” Both broths with added glutamate were tasty and delicious and made no taste compromises at all. Even better, they each had less than 300 mg of sodium per 8-oz. and the taste never gave it away. Even this foodie was blown away by the flavor. It tasted “meaty,” despite having only vegetables.
If I’d advised a patient to have the umami-flavored broths, they’d probably not believe they were so low in sodium – lower than the “reduced sodium” soups currently available, and way more delicious. I can see this broth being the basis for many recipes. The salt-only one tasted bland, but the other two tasted like they’d been cooking for hours.
Even better – all the broths had the same amount of sodium, even though they tasted wildly different. But only the broths with more umami would have motivated me to have more – and have them more often.
Personally, being able to have more flavor is motivating me to include more umami in my cooking. I never thought I’d see the day when less sodium also meant having more flavor. Bring on the umami!
For Further Reading…
Umami, the proven fifth taste, has enjoyed a fascinating and stellar history since its discovery in 1908. One of the high points in umami’s 110-year timeline is the World Umami Forum, which took place in New York City, September 20-21. This inaugural conference attracted food science experts, renowned researchers, food historians, journalists, registered dietitians, and culinary professionals from around the world.