Often called the fifth taste, umami (from the Japanese word for yummy) describes the “want-it-need-it-got-to-have-it” sensation we experience when eating foods rich in the amino acid L-glutamate. The sensors on our tongue that detect this amino acid are wired directly to the pleasure center of our brain, generating a reward-loop for our continued consumption. Why might this be? Well, we humans need to eat an adequate amount of protein to maintain good health, and L-glutamate is an essential component of protein.
First pondered in the early 1900’s, umami was officially added to the list of taste sensations-formerly sweet, sour, bitter and salty- in 1985, making it the relative new-kid on the block. This late-recognition, however, doesn’t imply that the taste sensation itself is new- it has always been there, just out of reach of description on the tip of our tongue.
Naturally occurring glutamates (not to be confused with MSG, or Mono-sodium glutamate) can be found in a wide variety of foods. You may recognize some of these as being favorites you can’t get enough of: seafood (especially crab), red meat, chicken, legumes, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, beets, corn, soybeans and cheese (especially parmesan).
For a meal designed to keep ‘em coming back to the table, try cooking foods rich in umami with a healthy fat like olive oil and a small dose of sugar-perhaps a drop of raw honey-all of these taste sensations trigger the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain.
For more on umami and the science of taste: