What Is Umami? Everything You Need to Know

Umami, the little-known "fifth taste," is the key flavor that makes some of your favorite foods taste so good.

We're all familiar with the four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. But there's been a lot of talk about a fifth taste previously described as that oh-so-good flavor you can't quite put your finger on. Umami taste is that indescribable, perfectly savory flavor you experience when eating certain Asian foods and hearty, meaty dishes. It dates back over 100 years, first defined by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. While umami is often associated with the savory taste found in Asian food, it is also a main flavor in foods like miso, shiitake mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, meat, and sun-dried tomatoes.

Umami Definition

Umami is the fifth taste alongside salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. The Japanese translation of umami is "pleasant, savory taste" or "yummy." Umami is a word used to describe rich, salty foods with a certain je ne sais quoi.

Umami has become so buzz-worthy that restaurants across the country are capitalizing on its popularity. Umami Burger, for one, is a restaurant chain known for its gourmet burger featuring key umami ingredients like shiitake mushrooms, fire-roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, umami ketchup, and a Parmesan crisp. Even Trader Joe's has followed suit, releasing an umami seasoning blend ($3, traderjoes.com). While umami is most commonly associated with miso soup, ramen, and other Asian dishes, it is also the predominant flavor in ham, raw beef, cured meats, and mushrooms.

Is Umami Good for You?

Umami is a particular taste, not an ingredient, which means it does not have a nutritional component. However, it is the main flavor in certain foods and condiments that are often deemed unhealthy and high in sodium. On the flip side, umami is also found in several foods that do have health benefits, like kimchi, shellfish, cabbage, mushrooms, asparagus, and ripe tomatoes. If you read labels carefully and eat in moderation, there is no harm in consuming foods with high levels of umami flavor.

MSG: The Commercialized Umami

When Ikeda defined the sensational savory flavor known as umami, he wanted to find a way to market it so people could apply the same essence to their cooking. The commercialized version of umami became known as monosodium glutamate or MSG. MSG is the sodium salt in glutamic acid, a naturally occurring acid found in tomatoes, grapes, cheese, and mushrooms.

MSG has been a controversial ingredient for some time because it has been linked to headaches, nausea, and other health issues. According to the Food and Drug Administration, foods that contain MSG are "generally recognized as safe," however the FDA does require clear labeling on foods containing MSG. While there are still misconceptions and a lot of research is inconclusive about the health effects of MSG, it is becoming more and more embraced by professional chefs and diners alike.

Why MSG Is so Delicious

MSG is a food additive and flavor enhancer commonly found in Chinese food, stock cubes, ramen, Doritos (yes, really), and other savory foods. MSG is a highly concentrated version of the flavor found in umami-rich ingredients like dashi, miso, and soy sauce. Originally, MSG was extracted from seaweed broth but is now made by fermenting starch and sugarcane. It has the same intensely savory quality found in ingredients like Parmesan cheese, which is why it's a popular additive.

Umami Recipes

Miso shines in a miso bloody mary or miso chicken noodle soup. For a healthy twist on this savory supplement, try making our recipe for kimchi soup with tofu and bacon. The whole family will love slow-cooker Asian short ribs, offering an indulgent take on umami.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles