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Can Umami Flavour Be Used as a Clinical Tool?

healthGiven the positive effect Umami has on other tastes could it be a clinical tool to help people with their dietary requirements?

Umami translates from Japanese as ‘delicious flavour’. It has been found to be a separate taste from the four we already know well – sweet, salty, sour & bitter. It has been found to have a synergistic effect with other tastes that increases food palatability by balancing & intensifying other flavours.

Most foods contain glutamate, although some more than others. Foods naturally high in glutamate include protein-rich meat, eggs, poultry, milk, cheese, and fish, along with sea vegetables, ripe tomatoes, and mushrooms. Umami is valued for making foods taste better. When an umami-rich food like seaweed is added to soup stock, for instance, it makes the broth heartier, more “meaty” and more satisfying.

Given the positive effect Umami has on other tastes it makes sense to consider using it as a clinical tool to make food tastier hence help people with their dietary requirements.

There is much debate over the difference between Umami & MSG, the later getting a lot of bad press because of its adverse effects on health. MSG is added to foods to give them more of that sought-after umami flavour. Indeed, both umami and MSG target the same receptors in your body BUT they are not identical, however, nor equally safe. Like for salt & carrageenan, extracts & isolates are said to have the reverse effects on health than the natural compounds found in wholesome foods. Because MSG is a synthetic reproduction of natural glutamate, it’s been in the news about its many negative health effects.  So when we are talking of Umami doing some good, we refer to dietary Umami – found in wholesome food – especially in seaweed.

Today MSG is found in many foods , especially in cheap, non-nutritious foods to make them tasty. The idea of using real umami to make good food irresistible is appealing.

Umami & glutamate for health

Understanding the effects of umami on other tastes is very useful in creating foods that are nutritious and tasty. By itself, umami is not extraordinary, but in small amounts makes a great variety of foods pleasant, especially in the presence of a matching aroma. Umami will heighten perceived salt & sweet tastes, thus allowing dishes with less salt or sugar to taste as good. It will soften sour & mask bitter, increasing the appeal of a dish without altering its nutritional value. In addition, it is useful to know that glutamate, the main component of umami plays a very important role in the body. It is:

  • One of the 20 amino acids needed for life
  • The most prevalent amino acid in the body
  • A key neuro-transmitter in the brain – Over half of all brain synapses use glutamate, and 30-40% use GABA. Since GABA is inhibitory and glutamate is excitatory, both neurotransmitters work together to control many processes, including the brain’s overall level of excitation.
  • Glutamate is a building block to GABA
  • Approximately 96% of dietary glutamate is used by gut mucosal cells as energy source

Umami and the elderly or under nourished

Some population groups, such as the elderly, may benefit from using umami because their taste and smell sensitivity can be impaired by age and medication. The loss of taste and smell can contribute to poor nutrition, increasing their risk of disease. Professor Margot Gosney, who chaired the Academic and Research Committee of the British Geriatric Society, worked on increasing the umami content in hospital food to make it more appealing to older people. A key motivation is to find ways through taste research to feed malnourished people to encourage them to eat better.

Researchers from Tohoku University Graduate School of Dentistry, Japan, conducted a small study of 44 elderly patients. Their findings were that some elderly patients suffer a loss of the umami taste sensation. All patients studied complained of appetite and weight loss, resulting in poor overall health. Umami taste receptors reportedly exist in the gut, suggesting that the umami taste sensation functions in nutrient sensation and modulating digestion in the gut, which could be important for maintaining a healthy daily life.

The researchers suggest that diseases suffered by elderly patients and side effects from their medications could cause taste disorders and reduced salivation. They also found that treatment to improve salivary flow had a beneficial effect on the patients’ taste sensations and could help patients with reduced umami sensitivity.

In this context, it is interesting to know that human milk is one of the highest Umami-containing mammalian milks.

Properties of Umami taste

Umami has a mild but lasting aftertaste that is difficult to describe. It induces salivation and a sensation of furriness on the tongue, stimulating the throat, the roof and the back of the mouth. Increasing the umami taste in food can result in fat, salt & sugar reduced recipes which still taste satisfying. Only a small amount of Umami is required to optimise the taste.

Other effects

Umami has been said to not only help the palatability of food but also to increase satiety.  A recent study showed that umami flavour in a protein meal boosted post-meal satiety, which resulted in eating less later in the day.


Umami: discovery to clinical use
Umami: enhances appetite & increases satiety
Experimental studies of food choice & palatability
Intensification of sensory properties of food for the elderly
Flavour enhancement & elderly nutritional status
Flavour enhancement improves dietary intake – elderly
Impact of aging on eating behaviour
Glutamate & GABA in the human brain
Glutamate much more than a neurotransmitter
How to increase GABA and balance glutamate

Disclaimer: This material is provided for educational purposes only and IS NOT intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This information is generic and may not include the latest research. We encourage you to do your own research and discuss your findings with a qualified health practitioner who can help you validate the outcomes in the context of your specific & individual health situation.

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