The Science Behind the Deceptive Taste of Umami

There is nothing worse than sitting a table with a group of people and having a conversation for which you know nothing about. As it has now become customary, every Monday, we are providing our readers with topics of public interest, so that in the future, on a more seldom instance will they be involved in discussions of a subject they have never heard before. This week, we will be a getting a glimpse of the fifth (unpopular) taste, known as umami.

It is through this taste, that we can give a tangible description to some of Wittgenstein’s ideas on language. “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.” And so we will try to immerse ourselves in the magnificent world of our taste buds to see if language can really limit our minds when it comes to umami.

The human body is composed of 20 different amino acids. One of these is called glutamate. Umami is a word coined by Kikunae Ikeda to describe the taste of glutamate when he was able to isolate it. This flavor tends to induce salivation and a furriness of sensation of the tongue, which also stimulates the throat, the roof, and the back of the mouth. Umami is unpalatable if left alone and that’s why it’s so difficult to describe.

There exist many sources which are consumed daily that are rich in umami. Some of the most common ones are fish, cured meats, vegetables (e.g. mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, spinach, etc.), green tea, and fermented and aged products (e.g. cheeses and soy sauce). The first time a human ever encounters umami is when they consume their first dose of breast milk.

And though you may think that umami is merely a novelty in the description of taste, well think again. There is a lot more to it than just a taste. We may think that our tongue is the source of our enjoyment of food, when actually it is our nose which perceives most of the taste. It has been found, for example, that we do not eat ice cream because we want to experience a delicious taste. We eat it because we want to pleasure a different pathway; one that is excited not by the flavor of a particular food, but from the brute intake of energy. Therefore, if ice cream weren’t as calorically dense as it is, it wouldn’t be as pleasurable. Our systems are preconditioned to enjoy calories. They are the real delight we find in food.

In a recent paper, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, it was found that people, for example, which at first did not enjoy the taste of blue cheese, soy sauce, or mushrooms, with time eventually did learn to like them. It seems that umami is also perceived via the digestive tract of a person, meaning that the feelings of enjoyment can also be felt without even tasting a particular food.

In brief, umami can truly be quite deceptive. We could be eating a food source rich in umami and not even know it. Our favorite food could be rich in umami and we would think it is because we only like the taste. Umami comes from the Japanese word ‘umai meaning brothy, meaty, or savory. In the future, look out for it, it may bring light to many of your eating habits and show you why you love the foods that you love.

Do you know other sources which are rich in umami? Have an opinion you would like to share? Your ideas and opinions will highly enhance the value of this post.
Pictures via ShakeTheShame and alicehoang.
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