Umami, a twenty-first century buzzword, combines the Japanese characters for "delicious" and "taste," and comprises the fifth basic taste, an otherwise difficult-to-describe the "savoriness" associated with foods such as meat, vegetables and dairy products.
Glutamic acid, or glutamate, is a naturally abundant amino acid which is responsible for creating the savory, umami flavor in many foods. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), the commercially produced, sodium salt of glutamic acid, imparts a familiar and highly desirable flavor to foods. In the food industry, it is commonly added as a flavor enhancer to things such as canned vegetables, soups, salad dressings, chips, bouillon cubes, processed meats and Chinese and fast foods.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as an ingredient that is "generally recognized as safe," however, its use remains controversial. Many anecdotal reports of adverse reactions to foods containing MSG, reactions known as MSG symptom complex, can include headaches, flushing, sweating, facial pressure or tightness, chest pain, heart palpitations, nausea and weakness. Symptoms are usually mild and do not require treatment.
While research has not found a definitive link between MSG and these symptoms, it is possible that some people are particularly sensitive to the chemical, and would benefit from avoiding it.
Alternatives to MSG
Since the primary function of MSG is to stimulate the savory taste factor, there are many products available that can enhance the flavors of cooking and take its place.
Often used for their high levels of protein, soy beans are also known for containing similar nutrients to meat. Japanese and Chinese food is often enhanced by the versatile soy bean, with the fermented flavor sparking the original search for umami.
Meat, Poultry, Fish
As meats age, the enzymes contained within the meat begin to break down its proteins to increase the levels of umami-imparting amino acids. Certain cooking techniques such as roasting, stewing or searing can also enhance the flavors of meats and fish.
Tomatoes are high in free glutamate, which provides a natural umami flavor. Roasting tomatoes will further intensify this flavor and serves as an excellent flavor booster for many dishes.
Mushrooms can often serve as substitutes for meat, appealing to our taste for protein with higher levels of umami-related compounds. Pan roasting or caramelizing varieties such as Portobello or Shiitake until brown can intensify their rich umami flavor.
Depending on the dish and the season, there are a variety of herb combinations that can stimulate the taste buds and enhance the flavor of foods. If you purchase a pre-mixed combination, be sure to check the label for added MSG or hydrolyzed vegetable protein, a naturally occurring free glutamate.
Sarah Dreifke is a freelance writer based in DeKalb, IL with a passion for nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease. She holds a Bachelor of Science in both Dietetics and Life Sciences Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is working towards a combined Master's Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics as well as a dietetic internship at Northern Illinois University.