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People are able to recognize a total of five different flavors through the sense of taste: bitter, sour, salty, sweet and umami . This fifth flavor is unknown to many people, but it is currently taking on an ever greater relevance. Although there are those who believe that it is a recent discovery, the truth is that its origin dates back to ancient Rome, where the use of garum, a fermented fish sauce rich in umami, was common.

The sweet taste is characterized by detecting those foods that are rich in glucose and sucrose. As for salty, it detects sodium and chlorine. Regarding bitter, it serves as a protection against toxic foods. And finally, umami detects those foods with a high protein content, being monosodium glutamate what gives it its characteristic flavor.

To learn a little more about what this word means, let’s first analyze what its terminology is. It is derived from two vocables, umai (delicious) and mi (flavor) . It began to become popular globally after a Japanese chose this word to refer to those foods that taste both delicious and intense.

There is a wide range of foods that contain this flavor. However, only one single product is known to be considered pure umami: monosodium glutamate. It is an ingredient widely used in Asian cuisine, generally purchased in powder form and used to enhance the flavor of different recipes.

What is umami?

Although umami foods have been consumed since Ancient Rome, this flavor was not identified as such until the beginning of the 20th century. The scientist Kikunae Ikeda of the Imperial University of Tokyo discovered that glutamate provided the characteristic flavor of the cooking broth of Kombu seaweed, which was the result of the mixture of sweet, sour, bitter and salty.

From that moment on, other foods were investigated in which the presence of this fifth flavor was discovered, such as shiitake mushrooms , ripe tomatoes, soy sauce, anchovies, cheese, etc.

One of the main characteristics of umami is that it significantly enhances the flavor of other ingredients . To give a simple example, if when cooking a chicken broth you add some shiitake mushrooms or a few drops of soy sauce, the dish will be tastier and, therefore, will have more umami.

Although it sounds strange, the truth is that the vast majority of us have been using umami in our recipes. For example, the typical mixture of cheese and tomato to prepare pasta dishes, or the fact of adding a ham bone to the broth are ways to enhance the flavor of each ingredient.

Umami is not a flavor in which we have been educated, so it is somewhat difficult to distinguish as such. However, it is easy to perceive the effect it produces by enhancing the flavor of the rest of the ingredients, achieving a flavor of greater intensity.

Properties of umami flavor

Umami promotes salivation and provides a soft, velvety sensation on the tongue, thus stimulating the back of the mouth, palate and throat. Umami by itself is not tasty, but it enhances the flavor of food. All the taste buds on the tongue and other areas of the mouth are capable of detecting the umami flavor.

Curiosities of the umami flavor

  • Umami was identified in 1908 by the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda. He discovered it by chance, sensing a different taste sensation in the kombu seaweed broth.
  • It means something tasty or delicious in the Japanese language.
  • The flavor is very difficult to define. Even so, it can be noted that it is unique and very characteristic, tasty although without being salty.
  • Umami is a great flavor enhancer for a wide range of foods, allowing you to reduce the amount of salt when cooking.
  • Different processes such as fermentation, aging or maturation, among others, release umami from food as they degrade proteins.

Is umami the fifth flavor?

Umami provides a very pleasant sensation, leading to different effects on the body.

  • Salivation: the fifth place notably increases salivation, which is why the ingredients are perceived with greater intensity.
  • Physiology: umami also gives rise to a physiological sensation very similar to what we perceive when we consume a food that we love.

Monosodium glutamate

Monosodium glutamate is added to those foods that do not naturally have the umami taste . It is an additive whose main characteristic is that it maximizes flavors. In addition, it decreases satiety, increasing the desire to consume these foods. It is commonly used in precooked foods, such as chicken broths, fruits, instant soups, etc.

Like any other additive , the EU states that monosodium glutamate can be used to improve the taste of food. In addition, it indicates that its use complies with the conditions established by the regulations of the European Union.

The truth is that monosodium glutamate has gotten a bad rap in society due to several factors. On the one hand, because there is a tendency to bet on foods that are as natural as possible. Thus, everything that sounds harmful, as is the case, is rejected. On the other hand, in the 60s of the 20th century, it was related to the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome , which was characterized by headaches and dizziness after eating in one of these establishments.

What foods are umami?

There are several umami foods that naturally contain it. These foods manage to enhance the individual flavor of the rest of the ingredients that are used to prepare a certain recipe. And, although we are not yet educated to distinguish the fifth flavor as such, it is increasingly common to seek new ways to achieve that flavor to give more intensity to the dishes.

  1. Serrano ham: one of the most consumed foods in the Mediterranean diet, which provides a wide range of benefits to the body. It is a great source of easily assimilated proteins, as well as vitamins of group B. Thanks to its high content of vitamin B1, its consumption is of great help to alleviate the symptoms of stress and depression.
  2. Tomatoes: Tomatoes are one of the most beneficial foods that exist. Thanks to its high antioxidant content, it reduces the risks of stroke and prevents premature aging of both skin and cells. In addition, it has a diuretic effect that helps eliminate accumulated toxins in the body.
  3. Bonito: Bonito is one of the most highly valued blue fish in gastronomy. Its caloric content is very low and it is very rich in nutrients: minerals, vitamins, omega 3 fatty acids and folic acid. In addition, it has proteins of high biological value that help to care for physical and mental health.
  4. Cheese: cheese is a food that contains all the amino acids necessary for the body to function properly. It is one of the main sources of calcium, an essential mineral for healthy bones. In addition, it reduces bacterial plaque and promotes salivation.
  5. Anchovies: anchovies are a type of oily fish that has a large amount of fat-soluble vitamins, which are of great help to preserve strong bones. In addition, they reduce the levels of bad cholesterol in the body. It is also a good source of fiber, so it favors intestinal transit and prevents constipation .
  6. Miso soup : miso soup is one of the most traditional dishes of Japanese cuisine. It helps to detoxify the body, thus eliminating all the toxins accumulated in it. In addition, it prevents cardiovascular diseases and hypertension. It also protects the body from infection.
  7. Soy sauce: and lastly, soy sauce, one of the main umami foods. It is a source of high quality protein, as well as vitamins B and E, minerals and isoflavones. It should be noted its great antioxidant power to purify the body.

When using umami in the kitchen, you have to know very well how to identify it and with what to combine it. Keep in mind that not everything goes well with the fifth flavor. It is advisable to avoid products rich in umami with gold such as sweets or green leafy vegetables. It is best to combine this type of food with other salty and strong, thus enhancing the intensity of the dishes.

What does umami taste like?

Umami, as we have pointed out, is a flavor of great intensity that remains in the mouth for a long period of time. It can usually be savored even after the food has been swallowed. Recent research has indicated that it is savored in the central part of the tongue.

Most of what we call flavor is not about taste, but about smell . Both are two different chemical senses, but they interact directly through certain chemical compounds whose receptors are in the olfactory epithelium.

Thus, the smell reaches the brain through two routes: one direct and the other indirect. The first one takes place when we inhale through the nose. And, the second, when chewing and swallowing a certain food, a series of molecules are released that reach the nose from the mouth; that is, when you exhale. Therefore, a certain part of the sensations that are perceived from food and drink are due to smell.


Much remains to be discovered about umami foods in the medium and long term. There are many studies underway about the fifth flavor, trying to define what umami tastes like in a concrete way. A very intense and deep flavor that can be found in many foods that most of us consume on a daily basis

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Hello Readers, I am Nikki Bella a Psychology student. I have always been concerned about human behavior and the mental processes that lead us to act and think the way we do. My collaboration as an editor in the psychology area of ​​Well Being Pole has allowed me to investigate further and expand my knowledge in the field of mental health; I have also acquired great knowledge about physical health and well-being, two fundamental bases that are directly related and are part of all mental health.

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