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How Umami Can Help You Cut Back on Calories Without Sacrificing Flavor

Umami, our most recently discovered taste, can help you enjoy flavorful foods without having to load up on excess salt, fat, and sugar. Find out what foods provide umami taste and can help you create delicious, healthy meals.

If you’re trying to cut back on sodium, fat, or sugar in your diet — three things that are often added to foods to enhance flavor — try amping up the umami instead. What is umami, you ask? Umami, which is the fifth taste to be discovered, has been described as savory, mouth-filling, or meaty. Umami is actually a Japanese word that means “savory pleasant taste” when translated.

When you experience umami, your taste buds are actually reacting to certain compounds found naturally in foods such as meat, seafood, cheese, aged fermented foods, and certain vegetables such as mushrooms and tomatoes. It is also present in human breast milk. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is probably the most well-known of these compounds responsible for the umami taste. The umami taste occurs when the amino acid glutamate or the nucleotides guanylate or inosinate combine with potassium ions or sodium ions, as is the case in MSG. The salts of adenylate (a nucleotide) and aspartate (an amino acid) are other umami substances but they are not as strong as glutamate. Shellfish provides umami flavor from its succinic acid.

Because there is a variety of compounds present in foods that contribute to the umami perception, a food or dish that contains more than one of those compounds provides an even more delicious, collective, harmonious umami effect. This is why the combination of grated Parmesan cheese over your pasta with tomato sauce and sauteéd mushrooms tastes so irresistible. Umami is not very flavorful on its own, but it does contribute mouthfeel and helps finish a dish.

Tomatoes

You may know that tomatoes are chock-full of phytonutrients, especially beneficial lycopene, but did you know they’re also bursting with umami? To get the most umami flavor, seek out dried and canned tomatoes. Bonus points if you can or dry your own garden tomatoes.

Mushrooms

The more deep-hued the mushroom is, the more umami taste it provides. Dried mushrooms pack more umami flavor than fresh mushrooms, and cooking mushrooms increases their umami taste too. Dried shiitake mushrooms have the most concentrated umami, with dried porcini and dried morels packing a big umami punch too, all thanks to their guanylate content. Add these dried mushrooms into sauces, soups, and stews to cut back on sodium, and swap out half of the ground beef in a recipe for sliced, sauteéd mushrooms.

Other Veggies

In addition to mushrooms and tomatoes, these produce picks pack umami punch: onions, broccoli, peas, asparagus, beets, and kombu seaweed. Toss it all together in a stir-fry with a little reduced sodium soy sauce or fish sauce for a dish exploding with flavor.

Meat and Seafood

Beef, poultry, and pork all provide umami, but it’s recommended that we eat more fish. More importantly, we should be replacing some of the red meat we consume with fish. Also rich in umami are sardines, bonito, and dried bonito (Katsuobushi).

Ripened and Fermented Foods

Fermented foods, such as soy sauce (a main component in dashi broth), fish sauce, miso, and other condiments that come from fermented grains, contribute umami flavor.

Aged Cheeses

Aged cheeses, such as Parmesan, Gruyere, Gouda, Roquefort, manchego, pecorino, and cheddar are rich in the compounds that provide the umami sensation. Aged cheeses, which are aged for six months or more, have a sharp flavor and a firm texture. The longer the cheese is aged, the more umami it will contain.

These cheeses are intensely-flavored, meaning a little bit goes a long way. And since cheese in general tends to be high in fat and calories, and people tend to easily go overboard on the portion size, selecting aged cheeses can provide more flavor in a smaller amount.

Health Benefits

One way that utilizing umami foods helps you eat healthier is that it allows you to cut back on the salt and fat that are usually used to amp up the flavor of food. Additionally, many of the foods that have umami taste — particularly vegetables, fruit, and fish — are loaded with beneficial nutrients such as fiber, healthy fats, protein, and disease-fighting phytochemicals.

[Image via Getty]

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