Seaweeds and umami are intertwined topics, as seaweeds like Kelp and Kombu offer concentrated umami flavour. It’s claimed by many Japanese that umami is “critical to delicious cooking”. Think of the difference ingredients such as tomatoes, onions, mushrooms can make to the taste and flavour of a meal – well these all contain an amino acid called glutamate – the source of umami flavour, also known as the ‘fifth taste’. Read all about umami and some of the surprising health benefits it has.
What is Umami Flavour and How Does It Impact Taste and Flavour?
The taste of food has been a driving force in human evolution, and umami is simply a new word for an ancient taste impression. Umami is the Japanese word for ‘delicious’, a flavour enjoyed by Asian cultures for centuries.
Umami has become the common name for the 5th taste – after sweet, salty, bitter and sour and 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. Umami is not technically an ingredient in itself, but the flavour is known to draw out the flavours of other ingredients in a dish, increasing palatability by balancing & intensifying other flavours. Only a small amount of umami is required to optimise the taste.
Seaweeds and Umami Flavour
Seaweeds and umami are inextricably linked. Seaweeds offer one of the richest sources of umami flavour and have been used extensively in Japanese cuisine for centuries.
You may observe a fluffy white powdery substance which settles on a seaweed leaf as it dries – particularly wild harvested seaweeds. Many mistake this for mould, but it is in fact an amino acid called glutamate which naturally rises to the surface of the drying frond. This is the source of umami taste, commonly found in seaweeds.
Professor Ikeda, a Japanese chemist, first observed this white powder in 1908 after studying the compounds in kelp seaweed his wife used to make him tofu broth! Shortly after this, he patented glutamate salt, or monosodium glutamate (MSG), and it has been produced commercially ever since. MSG mimics natural glutamate’s ability to initiate certain processes in our bodies. Glutamate’s role in brain development and brain health points to why MSG (synthetic glutamate salt) has such a bad reputation.*
Health Benefits of Glutamate (Umami)
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. Increasing the umami taste in food can result in fat, salt and sugar reduced recipes which still taste satisfying. 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.
Glutamate is an energy source for cells that make up the lining of the gut. Studies show that glutamate drives our digestion, sending signals to the stomach, small intestine, and liver. Besides its role in digestive health, glutamate is also an excitatory brain chemical. It plays an essential role in learning and memory. The body uses glutamate to produce another brain chemical called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is a calming and inhibitory brain chemical in the adult brain.
In summary, 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, it is in fact 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
- linked to gut health – digestion and absorbtion
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.
Interestingly, research has found that glutamate is the most abundant amino acid in breast milk, making up more than 50% of the amino acids in breast milk, so umami is often the first flavour a new born infant encounters. The naturally high concentrations of glutamate (Umami) in breast milk support new born gut tissue.
Umami To Improve Outcomes for the Elderly or Under-nourished
Some population groups, such as the elderly or undernourished, may benefit from increasing umami flavours in their food, 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.
If you have an elderly person in your care, seaweeds and umami flavour could be a topic to explore further. Below are some of the sources of umami flavour to consider.
What are Sources of Umami Flavour?
Most foods contain glutamate, although some more than others. Foods naturally high in glutamate include seaweeds include:
- Sea vegetables (seaweeds)
- Some garden vegetables (ripe tomatoes, mushrooms, mature potatoes/squash/corn, legumes)
- Meat (cured ham, beef, lamb & poultry)
- Fish & shellfish (dark fin fish like anchovy, tuna, mackerel & most shellfish)
- Fungi (mushrooms, truffles & savoury yeast)
- Condiments (fish & soy sauce, Caesar dressing, Worcestershire & ketchup)
- Fermented beverages (wine, beer & sake)
- Dairy (aged cheeses, blue cheeses, eggs)
While some foods are naturally endowed with much umami flavour (shellfish, seaweeds & mushrooms), others need to be selected at the right time (ripe tomatoes) or for their ‘lifestyle’ (tuna vs gurnard) to get the ‘good umami’ attributes. Stocks, Soups or broths are often the best example of umami taste – seaweeds and umami are intertwined – when you think of one, think of the other!
Although many foods have some umami, intensity increases with the right combination of ingredients and a preparation method that naturally releases & concentrates the amino acids.
Intensifying Umami Flavour
To intensify umami flavour try the below:
- Add glutamate-rich stock, like seaweed stock to dishes. Or add seaweed seasoning to your cooking instead of processed seasonings laden with chemicals.
- Add fermented products for example cheeses, artisan breads, sauerkraut or fermented vegetables
- Cook – heat, examples are searing, braising & slow cooking
- Age/Cure – natural enzyme action, for example, cure meats, fish and vegetables (pickles)
As the world awakes to the taste and health benefits of umami, it’s never been easier to cook with seaweed. Add flavour, reduce salt, add nutrients. Once you discover umami there is no going back! Get started today!
*Note: Umami and MSG are they The Same?
Today MSG (also known as monosodium glutamate or additive code number 621) is used by the food industry to enhance flavour. MSG is a synthetic reproduction of natural glutamate. While MSG and Umami may be chemically similar, there is an important distinction between them that significantly affects the way each reacts in our bodies. Umami flavour, or natural glutamic acid (glutamate), found in natural foods, is “bound” to other amino acids or proteins. MSG is not bound.
As free (unbound) glutamate, it is added to foods to enhance flavour and mimic natural umami taste. Like most synthetic isolates, MSG has its fair share of problems. It has been linked to inflammation, type 2 diabetes, and the destruction of liver tissue.
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 sale and 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.
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.