One of the dilemmas of my work is convincing people that you can eat healthy food that actually tastes of something. When you are asking people to cut down the three things that make food taste good – salt, sugar and fat it can be a hard call. That’s why umami is such an interesting concept when it comes to adding flavour and satisfaction to food.
Humans have four primary sensory areas that detect salt, sweet, sour and bitter tastes on our tongue. In the 1980s scientists decided that we actually have a fifth primary taste, named umami, taken from the Japanese meaning ‘pleasant savoury taste’. This means that we have a taste for foods containing high levels of certain amino acids called glutamates and what these essentially do is complete, deepen or round off a taste, and it is this effect that makes a meal more satisfying. Japanese food contains high levels of umami and perhaps it is this very quality that contributes to the longevity of Japanese people. Their leanness and very low levels of obesity may be attributed to the fact that they eat small portions of food. But could it be that they are fully satisfied with this arrangement because they feel satisfied due to the umami in their dishes? Who knows but in the UK we all eat way too much generally and certainly research has shown that people who eat ‘diet’ foods, low sugar, low fat, low everything, put on more weight than people who don’t. So focusing on smaller portions of more satisfying flavoursome foods rather than foods full of chemicals that are used to compensate for sugar, fat and salt is, I think, a good idea. Oh and a typical Mediterranean diet is stuffed full of umami-rich foods.
There is a difference though, between eating small amounts of foods that contain naturally occurring glutamates, and processed foods that contain MSG (Monosodium Glutamate), added specifically for the reasons outlined above. If you add MSG to foods you can basically get away with not having much flavour in that food, for example protein like chicken or beef. So things like stock cubes usually contain MSG for that very reason, and cheaper processed foods. Also the chemical configuration of glutamates may be changed in the manufacturing process and this may cause some of the alleged health problems associated with it. However, some highly sensitive people may also react to all glutamate-rich foods, not just MSG. And some people do eat too much ; I have clients that pour soya sauce over everything and if you love Marmite, you are strongly in touch with your umami side!
So off I go to the supermarket to find umami rich foods to feed my unsuspecting husband, who is always the recipient, sometimes not very happily though, of my finds! But I know he loves these foods and the idea is to add them and cut down the portion size. So these are commonly found umami rich foods that you can use in everyday cooking:
- Tomatoes and tomato paste
- Parmesan cheese
- Anchovies and anchovy paste
- Red wine – a dash in a casserole really does add that extra depth
- Mushrooms, especially porcini and shitaake
- Tamari (wheat free soy sauce)
- Marmite (a good alternative to stock cubes in soups. Yes I am a fan!)
- Balsamic vinegar
- Fish sauce
- Seaweeds like kombu and wakami
- Parma ham
Probably the ultimate in cheating but ease is a new product called Taste No.5 Umami Paste which I found with the tomato puree in my supermarket. It is actually delicious and does exactly what it says on the label. Umami is quite addictive though and you can find that you are putting it on everything so beware!