Nutrition

Umami: Why the flavour is good for your health

By: Pay Chen

Photography by Kevin Wong Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Kevin Wong

Nutrition

Umami: Why the flavour is good for your health

By: Pay Chen
Think of the last time you elevated the flavour of a plain piece of sushi with soy sauce or tweaked the flavour of a pasta dish with a few flakes of Parmesan cheese. You can thank the "fifth taste", umami, for pleasing your palate. More than a century after the taste was identified in Japan, umami isn't just a foodie staple—it's also being studied for its health benefits.

What does umami mean?

Umami is more complex than its four siblings, sweet, salty, sour and bitter. The Japanese syllables translate to "delicious essence" (umai) and "taste" (mi). The words were first paired in 1908, when Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda isolated the components of kombu, the seaweed in dashi soup stock. Ikeda's discovery led to the now-controversial development of monosodium glutamate (MSG) as a seasoning. Though some people are strongly sensitive to MSG, most can eat it safely. "MSG is MSG, no matter where it comes from," says Ole G. Mouritsen, coauthor of Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste. "The MSG inside a sun-ripened tomato or a mature cheese is exactly the same as that produced in a factory." Still, he'd rather cook with natural umami ingredients. Toronto chef Susur Lee agrees, saying he prefers to base his dishes on quality stock made with Chinese ham, duck, chicken or pork.

What foods contain umami?

"In Chinese, they call it xian wei. It's how we describe the sweetness of the ocean," says Lee. Oysters, squid and octopus are high in xian wei, as are dried shrimp and scallops. Cured ham, aged cheese, tomatoes, walnuts, seafood and potatoes are also umami foods; braising, drying, smoking, aging and fermenting them can intensify the effect. For instance, the natural glutamate levels in shiitake mushrooms are 15 times higher when dried.

Is umami bad for you?
On the contrary: Mouritsen, professor of biophysics at the University of Southern Denmark, has conducted research that suggests umami foods may help us consume less added salt, sugar and fat. Umami tells your brain you're eating more satisfying food, thereby increasing the likelihood you'll stop before overeating. The reverse also appears to be true for those who need to eat more. A study published in the journal Flavour found that foods high in umami helped elderly patients who were experiencing loss of appetite and taste due to medical treatments; umami increased saliva flow and made foods more palatable.

Check out these food combinations for better health.

This story was originally part of "All About Umami" in the November 2015 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!
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Nutrition

Umami: Why the flavour is good for your health

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