Umami enjoys lots of ink in the popular press because consumers have discovered what chefs have known for a long time—the umami taste makes foods taste more delicious. What many folks don’t realize is that the umami taste is about more than savory stews and to-die-for burgers. Our ability to detect the umami taste has health significances as well. A new study published in the journal, Flavour, points to several roles for the umami taste in human health—especially for older people.
We only want eat what we can taste
Obviously, what we eat plays an important role in our health, but let’s face it, taste is the driving factor in food selection. Therefore, our ability to taste food is central to our consumption of a nourishing diet that contributes to overall health and well being. When food doesn’t taste good, we don’t want to eat it. No doubt you’ve experienced this first-hand when you’ve had a cold and cannot taste your food—there’s very little that appeals to you—perhaps even Mom’s homemade chicken soup. For some people, that lack of taste ability doesn’t go away. In older people, for example, there is a documented reduction in the ability to taste the full range of the five basic tastes.
Can’t taste umami?
Writing in Flavour, Tohoku University scientists described their creation of an umami taste sensitivity test and tested 44 subjects who were all over age 65. Once that was done, they found that those test subjects who could not taste umami also had experienced weight loss and had overall poor health. Further, those who could not detect umami in foods also tended to suffer from diseases such as various oral diseases, gastric diseases—even diabetes, and were taking medications, which in general are known to negatively impact taste sensation. A lack of salivary flow was also noted.
Restoring the ability to taste umami
The researchers set out to restore umami tasting-ability in the study subjects with the hypothesis that doing so would lead to better food consumption, some weight gain and a resulting improvement in overall health. To do so, they used Japanese Kobucha, a kelp tea, which not only provides umami taste, but also promotes salivation. Saliva is known to strongly influence taste perception, and the umami taste is known to induce salivation—hence the choice of the tea as the intervention. What the researchers found was that the tea did indeed stimulate the subjects’ ability to taste umami, and also helped alleviate dry mouth symptoms caused by insufficient saliva products. “The umami taste function seems to play an important role in the maintenance of oral and overall health,” conclude the researchers.
Want to learn more about umami?
Check out this newly published book, Umami: Unlocking the secrets of the fifth taste, by Ole G. Mouritsen and Klavs Styrbaek if you want to learn more about putting umami taste to work in your own cooking. The book recently won a Danish National Food and Media Award. Part culinary history, part nutrition and food chemistry, the book also provides home cooks with information and ideas for preparing umami-rich, delicious meals with less fat, salt and sugar.