It has been over a century since umami was discovered in Japan, but umami is just now attracting global attention, primarily from chefs and others with a strong interest in food.
Umami is the fifth taste, joining sweet, sour, salty and bitter. These are unique tastes that cannot be created by mixing other tastes, and are known as the basic, or primary tastes. Umami is a general term used mainly for substances combining the amino acid glutamate, and/or the nucleotides inosinate and guanylate, with minerals such as sodium and potassium.*
How humans experience their food
＊In scientific terms, umami is defined as the taste of salts combining glutamate, inosinate or guanylate with the likes of sodium ions, such as monosodium glutamate, or potassium ions, but for the purposes of this pamphlet, except for sections requiring scientific precision, we describe umami as the taste of glutamate, inosinate and guanylate. Salts of the amino acid aspartate and the nucleotide adenylate are also types of umami substance, weaker than glutamate. Succinic acid, which gives shellfish their distinctive taste, has also been identified as another possible umami substance.
Since the word “umami” is originally Japanese and the Japanese expressions “to have umami” and “umai” can mean “tastiness” or “deliciousness,” “umami” is often confused with “deliciousness.” Whether something tastes good or not is a comprehensive yet subjective evaluation determined by elements such as taste, aroma, texture and temperature, besides other factors such as appearance, color and shape, as well as one’s physical condition, surrounding environment, cultural background, and previous experiences. Of these various elements, umami in balance with the other basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, and bitter) plays an important role in determining the deliciousness of a dish.
For human beings, being able to distinguish the five basic tastes is an indispensable survival skill, because it allows us to avoid risky foods and obtain nutrients safely.
By detecting the sour taste of organic acids in unripe fruit or rotting food, or the bitterness of alkaloids, for example, our tongue enables us to avoid danger. In contrast, when we detect the sweetness of sugars that serve as our energy source, or the saltiness of minerals necessary to maintain the balance of body fluids, we actively consume them.
Umami meanwhile serves as a signal to the body that we have consumed protein. Sensing umami triggers the secretion of saliva and digestive juices, facilitating the smooth digestion of protein.
Common examples of foods/taste substances for each of the basic tastes