What’s the latest? UMAMI (the correct spelling but pronounced “oo-mommy”), at least here in North America although it originates from Japan.
Have you ever eaten something only to have a hard time describing the taste? What you may have been unable to describe is umami. A distinct, difficult to describe flavor caused by the interaction of glutamates (a naturally occurring amino acid, with receptors on the tongue). That in itself is a tongue twister. Anyway…
WHEN HUMANS EAT, they use all of their senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste) to form general judgments about their food, but it is taste that is the most influential in determining how delicious a food is. We’re familiar with the four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. However, it is now known that there is the fifth primary taste: umami.
The literal translation of the Japanese term means “pleasant, savory taste” or “yummy,” but that hardly gives you much to go on. Let’s put it into terms you can understand. Think fatty meats like steak.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Few letters have the power to stop conversation in its tracks more than MSG, one of the most infamous additives in the food industry. Why is it that whenever I go into a new Chinese restaurant I always say “do you use MSG?” without even knowing exactly why or even if I have a reaction to it. It’s just a safe bet that if the proprietor says “yes” that I’ll go elsewhere. Interesting…what influence the media (and some people) have in creating havoc with our decision making abilities.
The three little letters carry so much negative weight that they’re often whispered sheepishly or, more often, decidedly preceded by the modifier “NO” that seems to make everyone breathe a collective sigh of relief when they go out to eat. Nobody wants MSG in their food—the protest goes—it causes headaches, stomach aches, dizziness and general malaise. It’s unhealthy and, maybe even worse, unsexy, used by lazy chefs as an excuse for flavor, not an enhancement.
On the other side of the spectrum lies umami: few foodie buzzwords pop off the lips with such entertaining ease. Enterprising young chefs like David Chang (of Momofuko fame) and Adam Fleischman, of the LA-based chain Umami Burger, have built their culinary careers on the basis of the fifth taste, revitalizing an interest in the meaty-depth of umami. It’s difficult to watch the Food Network or Travel Channel or any food-based program without hearing mention of the taste wunderkind, a host or chef cooing over the deep umami flavors of a Portobello mushroom. Where MSG is scary, umami is exciting.
What few people understand is that the hated MSG and the adored umami are chemically related: umami is tasted by the very receptors that MSG targets.
On the other hand, MSG’s glutamic cousin umami suffers no public scorn: in 2010, umami was deemed one of the most delicious food trends to watch. When Adam Fleischman’s Umami Burger (a burger chain devoted to all things umami) opened a New York outpost, the wait for a meaty bite stretched on for three-hours. In addition to piling natural glutamates onto their burger to ensure the most umami flavor, Umami Burger enhances the burger with their “umami dust (not unlike fairy dust),” a blend of dried mushrooms and seaweed, and umami sauce, which includes soy and Marmite.
“Most people don’t know the connection between umami and MSG. They know about it from the fifth taste, and the fifth taste was always called umami and not MSG,” Fleischman explains. “We didn’t feel that using MSG was creative enough. We wanted to do it ourselves. By doing it ourselves, we could create a flavor that was umami without the stigma of MSG. MSG, whether you like it or not, has been marketed so poorly, it sounds like this horrible thing.”
By harnessing natural glutamates for their burgers, Umami Burger avoids negative connotations associated with MSG. But the “natural” glutamates in an Umami Burger aren’t chemically any different from glutamtes in MSG.
“The short answer is that there is no difference: glutamate is glutamate is glutamate,” says Richard Amasino, professor of biochemistry at University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It would be identical unless different things created a different rate of uptake.”
Glutamtes that occur naturally in food come intertwined with different chemicals or fiber, which the body is naturally inclined to regulate, explains Amy Cheng Vollmer, professor of biology at Swarthmore College. MSG, however, comes without the natural components of food that help the body regulate glutamic levels. It’s like taking an iron supplement versus obtaining iron from spinach or red meat: the iron supplement creates an expressway between the iron and your bloodstream that you wouldn’t find in natural iron sources.
“The bottom line here is context is everything,” Vollmer adds.
So does MSG deserve its bad rap? For the small section of the population that shows sensitivity to it, probably. But for the rest of us, maybe it’s time to reconsider exactly what we’re so afraid of when it comes to MSG.
Is it a matter of taste or are we being too sensitive?
FDA considers the addition of MSG to foods to be “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). Although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions.