Tasting the Fifth Taste

fifth taste

If you’ve read anything from the culinary world the past few years, you probably know something about “umami,” which scientists have confirmed to be our fifth taste. We’ve all tasted umami before, and the savory flavor is a part of almost every one of our daily meals.

But how can we KNOW what umami tastes like? And does MSG taste like umami? Well, let’s get right into it.

First, let’s start with a simple taste test:

To taste the flavor “salty,” you’d likely eat a bit of salt, correct? For “sweet,” you’d eat a bit of sugar. For “sour,” you might bite into a lemon. For “bitter,” you may nibble on some unsweetened chocolate. But for “umami,” would you taste MSG?

Let’s break it down:

MSG stands for monosodium glutamate, which is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Glutamate is one of the most abundant amino acids, is found in protein-containing foods, and is the essence of umami. To taste umami in foods the glutamate receptors in your taste buds are activated. And if you were to taste a bit of MSG on its own, it would have little flavor. But, when added to foods, it brings out that savory, rich, umami flavor!

So, can we still do a taste test for umami?

umami scrambled eggs 

Of course! To taste umami, you can add MSG to plain foods, such as scrambled eggs. First, scramble an egg without using MSG. Then, follow this recipe. Eat your first scrambled egg with no added MSG, rinse your mouth with water, and then taste the egg with the MSG. What difference do you taste? Do you notice the savory and rich sensation that stays on your tongue? You can also try out this MSG taste test with a soup broth that has a low glutamate content, such as a vegetable broth. Taste the broth with no MSG, rinse out your mouth with water, and then taste the broth with MSG added (use about ½ teaspoon for 8 ounces of broth). Did you find the broth with MSG to be more savory and rich, with a meaty depth to it?

Though MSG is the easiest way to add umami to your foods, umami is found naturally in many other foods that contain glutamate. Glutamate is also produced by the human body and helps regulate metabolism and brain function. You can taste umami in foods such as mushrooms, tomatoes, and aged cheeses. So, you can do an umami taste test with these foods as well.

Let’s try it out:

According to the Umami Information Center, you can discover the taste of umami by eating a cherry tomato. Chew the cherry tomato slowly 30 times and notice the sensations on your tongue. The initial sourness and sweetness will pass quickly, leaving behind a savory, meaty flavor that is umami. In fact, even after swallowing the cherry tomato, you will still feel your mouth watering because umami influences salivary secretion.

You can also discover and compare umami in two cheeses, one that is young (aged 3 to 6 months) and one that is old (aged more than 12 months). Choose a semi-hard type cheese, such as Cheddar, Compte or Mimorette, made of the same ingredients by the same cheese producers. First, chew well a half slice of the young cheese. Sip some water and rinse your mouth. Then, chew well the half slice of the older cheese. What sensations did your tongue experience? Aging causes the protein in cheese to break down into amino acids and increases the amount of glutamate in the cheese. As you’ve likely discovered, the longer the cheese is aged, the greater umami flavor it contains.

As we’ve learned, MSG is the purest form of umami. MSG IS umami. But MSG is certainly not the only way to taste umami. The savory, meaty flavor we taste from glutamate is found naturally in many foods we enjoy every day, including aged cheeses, soy sauce and many veggies.

Interested in learning more about the fifth taste (umami)? Here’s a great video produced by PBS, and the umami pizza recipe they demonstrate is a must-try!

About MSGdishTeam

The MSGdish Team's goal is to provide timely and important information about glutamate, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and the many culinary creations inspired by “umami" while connecting these topics to facts about food, taste, and health. The MSGdish Team is comprised of TGA staff professionals who are recognized as experts in science-based nutrition communications. Read more on the About page.

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