From social media to restaurant concepts, umami is all the rage right now. It’s enough to give you FOMO (fear of missing out). If you feel out of the loop and are wondering, “What’s so great about umami?” then this is the post for you. Here are three reasons you should eat umami.
It tastes good.
Umami is a flavor that people like. We like it from a very young age. This makes sense given that breastmilk is rich in glutamate, the amino acid responsible for the flavor of umami. Research has shown that babies prefer sweet and umami flavors over sour and bitter flavors.
Those taste preferences stick with us as we get older. That is why many “comfort foods” are savory (hello mac & cheese). Ditto for some of our favorite condiments (ketchup, anyone?). It’s also why chefs are building restaurant concepts around the flavor (Umami Burger, Umami Sushi, Umami, and the list goes on). And why chef Tim Ma says every dish in his restaurant contains MSG, an ingredient that imparts umami flavor.
It has health benefits.
Umami tastes good and can make healthy foods taste better. Imagine the benefit of giving a vegetarian dish a more robust well-rounded flavor so that meat-eaters don’t miss the meat. And picture vegetables tasting good so people actually want to eat them. Adding umami through the incorporation of MSG or other umami-rich ingredients can do this. Given that only 10% of American adults eat the recommended amount of vegetables each day, this is a potentially powerful way to increase consumption of healthy foods without it feeling like it’s a chore.
Enjoying umami flavor might be a way our bodies get us to eat a needed nutrient. Umami signals the presence of protein in a food. (The umami flavor is triggered by an amino acid, glutamate, that is released as proteins in food break down.) And protein is a nutrient we need to consume to support our immune system, muscles, connective tissue, and body maintenance.
You can take the health benefits of umami a step further by using MSG to reduce sodium intake. Replacing some of the salt in a recipe with MSG can lower the dish’s sodium content by 20% to 40% without lowering the flavor. In fact, one study found that most of the taste-testers liked the low-salt dishes with MSG added as much as or better than the standard dishes.
And, there may be more benefits to umami from MSG as we get older. A poor appetite and lower food intake later in life can lead to energy and nutrient deficiencies. This in turn can decrease quality of life and life span. But, studies have found that boosting the umami flavor of food may lead to improvements in salivation, appetite, weight, and overall health in both sick and healthy elderly people.
It can broaden your horizons.
A fear of Asian immigrants led to limited acceptance of MSG in America in the early- to mid-1900s. Now, however, Americans are more curious about flavors from around the world.
While all countries have umami-rich foods in their food culture, MSG historically hasn’t been as prominent in Western cultures as it has Eastern ones. In many Asian households, a shaker of MSG can be found on dinner tables just like salt. MSGdish contributor Mary Lee Chin talks about it being a staple in her childhood home in her post, “Umami Flavor Is Highly Valued in Asian Cooking.” Experimenting with ingredients traditional to other cultures cannot only open up your palate but also help you feel more connected to the rest of the world.
Ready to shed your FOMO? Check out “How Do You Get More Umami in Foods?” to get started enjoying the benefits of umami.