While monosodium glutamate and umami may be chemically similar, there is an important difference that significantly affects how it reacts in the body. The umami flavor, or natural glutamic acid (glutamate), found in natural foods is linked to other amino acids or proteins. The glutamic acid that is monosodium glutamate is not. 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. 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. Umami, also known as monosodium glutamate, is one of the fifth major flavors, including sweet, sour, bitter and salty.
Umami means “essence of delight” in Japanese, and its flavor is often described as the meaty, savory treat that deepens flavor. Of course, it would be a bit of an exaggeration to say that ramen filled with MSG and a meaty umami burger have identical flavor profiles; after all, flavor is a combination of many factors, including taste and smell. But as for the tasty flavor that keeps us coming back for more, monosodium glutamate and natural umami cause the same reaction in our brain. The popular California burger chain Umami Burger has literally bottled the success of its flagship product with a line of umami sauces, powder and even a spray, available for sale on its website.
This simple combination of glutamate and sodium is actually very beneficial: it adds umami to foods and helps reduce total sodium content. Japanese scientists discovered this fifth flavor at the beginning of the 20th century and called it umami, which translates as salty. The fermentation process, like the curing process, also breaks down glutamate into free glutamate and gives it a stronger umami flavor. Proteins such as pork, beef, fish and seafood form a solid base for umami, and vegetables such as tomatoes, mushrooms and seaweed are also high in glutamate (umami).
While no research has yet been conducted on the market value of food products high in umami, the flavor trend in the restaurant industry is encouraging. Kumiko Ninomiya, director of the Umami Information Center and commonly known as the “umami mama”, prepares dashi with chef Kimio Nonaga, winner of the Iron Chef Japan Award. After discovering that glutamate was responsible for the umami flavor of some of his favorite foods, Ikeda converted MSG into a condiment. While MSG still maintains an aura of suspicion, the food industry continues to produce several products that contain the coveted umami flavor.