The reality is that monosodium glutamate and umami offer us the same taste experience. Although monosodium glutamate has a negative connotation and umami has a largely positive connotation, they actually use the same molecule, an amino acid called glutamate, to activate our taste receptors. For a long time, umami was not recognized as a basic flavor. Instead, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and umami were thought to be the same thing.
It wasn't until the late 20th century that scientists agreed that umami was the fifth flavor and listed it along with salty, bitter, sweet and sour. They realized that, unlike umami, monosodium glutamate is not found naturally in foods. Rather, monosodium glutamate is an additive that makes umami stronger. This is similar to adding salt to foods to make them taste salty.
Although umami is a Japanese name, it's a universal flavor found in foods all over the world. In the states, we find umami in barbecue sauce, ketchup, ranch dressing and salsa, to name a few. In Europe, umami is found in aged cheeses and cured meats (and yes, last month I ate a good amount of umami in Italy). Brazil and Portugal? Cod or dried cod.
And don't forget the umami-rich foods enjoyed everywhere, such as tomatoes, mushrooms and steaks. Monosodium glutamate is the purist form of umami and, when added to foods, it helps to harmonize and deepen the flavor. Umami translates to a pleasant salty flavor and has been described as steamy or meaty. You can taste umami in foods that contain a high level of the amino acid glutamate, such as Parmesan cheese, seaweed, miso and mushrooms.
MSG and umami also add a delicious flavor to dishes, so MSG could be used as a tool to help people eat more nutritious foods, such as vegetables. It is not considered desirable as a standalone flavor, but it adds complexity when combined with other flavors. Try the pure thing and what you'll find is that it shouldn't tell you, because you're not supposed to be biased, but you'll find that it tastes salty, because it contains sodium. Prepare a meal rich in umami with easy-to-find ingredients with recipes such as cheeseburgers stuffed with mushrooms, Thai crab curry with fish sauce and parmesan truffle fries.
The idea of a “flavor map” in which certain regions of the tongue detect certain flavors has been enthusiastically discredited. That's because as cheese ages, proteins break down, creating more free glutamate and more umami. In 1985, the International Umami Symposium held in Hawaii determined that umami was the scientific term for this fifth flavor. Monosodium glutamate can affect the vagus nerve very negatively because monosodium glutamate is a neurotoxin and a neurostimulant and, for that reason, it has a greater potential for addiction, since it really tastes good by stimulating the brain to believe it.
The researchers demonstrated that umami was not produced by any combination of other basic flavors, but that it was an independent flavor. When you eat foods with high levels of glutamate, the compound binds to taste bud receptors. However, this year I received a trip sponsored by Ajinomoto to Japan and to the World Umami Forum in New York. Adding foods that are full of umami flavor to your plate can add an explosion of delicious flavor to your food.
In response, your body produces more saliva and digestive juices to help you digest the proteins that umami warned you about.