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what is umami

What do walnuts, cheddar cheese, and oysters have in common? Umami!

What is Umami?

It’s one of our five basic tastes along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Umami is a complex flavor that can be difficult to define, but it’s often described as a pleasant savory taste. Think of the flavor of a hearty broth or piece of seared meat. That’s what is umami in a nutshell!

Glutamate is responsible for umami

Umami is a combination of the Japanese words for delicious and taste. It was discovered by Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University in the early 1900s. He wondered what made kelp broth taste so good, and discovered that the amino acid glutamate was responsible.

Glutamate is in many of the foods we eat every day because it’s in almost every plant and animal on earth. Some common foods that contain a lot of umami are cured ham, parmesan cheese, and tomatoes.

MSG is glutamate (and umami)

Glutamate, also present in MSG (monosodium glutamate), is the purest form of umami. MSG not only provides umami flavor, it also amps up the other flavors within foods.

MSG’s bad reputation is based on conjecture, not science. Double-blind studies have shown no link between MSG and often reported symptoms like headaches or flushing. People who feel sensitive to it may be reacting to something else in the food. Or, they could be experiencing the placebo effect – they expect a reaction so their brain creates one. Regardless, MSG is safe.

Umami is everywhere

People often associate MSG and umami with Asian foods, but really, it’s in cuisines worldwide. Italians are known for their dishes made from aged meats, aged cheeses, and tomatoes. Mexicans eat tacos with fish, tomatoes and cabbage in a corn tortilla. And Americans top their burgers with cheese, bacon, and ketchup. All of these dishes are comprised of one umami-rich food on top of another.

You may want to explore the long list of foods high in umami to add to the savory ingredients you already use. Of course, a dash of MSG will boost the umami of your dish too. (Take a look at how to cook with MSG if you’re not sure where to start.) Or, if you don’t feel like cooking, try one of the many restaurants focusing on umami.


Theresa is a dietitian in private practice who specializes in GI disorders and food allergies and intolerances. She is passionate about making nutrition fit within the constraints of the real world. Theresa previously spent years coaching heart patients at Emory University Hospital Midtown through lifestyle changes as well as teaching students at Oregon State University and Georgia State University the basics of nutrition. Read more about her background on the About page. Note: MSGdish bloggers are compensated for their time in writing for MSGdish, but their statements and opinions are their own. They have pledged to blog with integrity, asserting that the trust of their readers and their peers is vitally important to them.

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