Food Lifestyle

The Fifth Taste: Exploring Umami Foods and Recipes

11 min read

Discover the mouthwatering world of umami, the so-called “fifth flavor.” Recognized in the West only for the last few decades, umami foods have long occupied a place of pride in traditional Asian cuisines. But there’s been concern about the use of the flavor enhancer MSG, a synthetic source of umami often associated with Chinese restaurants. So is there a difference between MSG and natural sources of umami? And can we enjoy umami flavor from plant-based sources?

Western food researchers have long resisted the idea that there was a fifth flavor coded into human taste buds. To them, it was as ludicrous as saying that blue, yellow, and red aren’t the only primary colors.

And that really didn’t begin to change until the First International Symposium on Umami Taste, held at the University of Hawaii in 1985 — despite the discovery of the “fifth flavor,” umami, at the turn of the 20th century.

In fact, it’s really only recently that umami has gained its rightful place in the flavor spectrum outside of Asian cultures.

For example, the restaurant chain Umami Burger has focused on making burgers using umami-rich animal- and plant-based ingredients like fish heads, caramelized onions, and roasted tomatoes since 2009. It became so successful, it spawned a chain of establishments dedicated to providing ultra-umami culinary experiences to their patrons.

Now, many a restaurant reviewer likes to point out the “rich umami flavor” of certain dishes across the spectrum of world cuisine. Umami has become a venerated part of the foodie landscape.

But umami is not just associated with gourmet natural foods, it’s also associated with a much-demonized synthetic food additive called MSG, or monosodium glutamate. MSG was first formulated and produced in 1909, originally from seaweed, and later from wheat and defatted soybeans. Since then, it’s become a mass-produced flavor enhancer that may or may not be a health risk (you’ll have to read on to find out the scientific verdict).

So what exactly makes a food umami? Do all umami tastes that derive from glutamate have the same effects as MSG? And do you have to eat meat to enjoy the savory flavor of umami? In this article, we’ll explore the world of umami tastes, and also provide opportunities for you to get a mouthful of non-MSG-based umami by sharing seven recipes featuring umami-rich foods.

How Was Umami Discovered?

Japanese seaweed salad in chopstick  on hand 's man ready to eat. Arunwaikit

The flavor we call “umami” was discovered by a Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda, in 1908. After a trip to Germany, during which he first tasted asparagus, tomatoes, cheese, and meat, he began to suspect that the four known tastes — sweet, sour, bitter, and salty — didn’t account for every food flavor.

When he later came home to Japan and enjoyed a particularly delicious bowl of his wife’s dashi (seaweed broth), the rich taste reminded Ikeda of the foods he had encountered in Germany. As a result, he quickly put the seaweed (kelp) under the microscope, literally and figuratively. That’s when he discovered the chemical compound responsible for this savory and satisfying flavor: a molecule called glutamate.

Ikeda dubbed the flavor umami, putting together the Japanese words for “meaty flavor” and “essence.” The term has long had an association with Japanese cuisine — especially the dashi broth that inspired its discovery — but has become popular outside of Japan and other Asian countries in the last few decades.

What Is Umami?

Umami is now recognized as the fifth basic taste, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Humans have taste receptors specifically for umami foods. And it’s mostly associated with meaty, nutty, and savory-tasting foods with a high amino acid content.

But in order for something to taste umami, those amino acids need to be released — either by cooking or through fermentation.

In what I’m going to call the “umami paradox” (which sounds like a rejected movie title from the Jason Bourne franchise), researchers have found that umami compounds actually taste kind of bad alone, but they improve the taste of food when combined with other flavor profiles.

So umami is not only a taste in its own right but also a flavor enhancer for other tastes. Umami substances trigger the secretion of saliva, enhance appetite, and increase food palatability, qualities that often make MSG a key added ingredient in many food products and cuisines.

Glutamate vs MSG

Blackboard with the chemical formula of Glutamate

Before we get to umami foods and recipes, we need to clear up a common misconception: that glutamate, the molecule primarily responsible for umami taste, is identical to monosodium glutamate, or MSG. While they sound similar, they’re quite different chemically.

Glutamic Acid

Natural glutamate is a safe compound that you get as part of a healthy dietary pattern.

Glutamate in food comes in the form of glutamic acid, a naturally occurring amino acid. In your body, it gets converted into glutamate, which is an amino acid neurotransmitter — a chemical that helps nerve cells in the brain send and receive information. It’s a precursor to the neurotransmitter GABA, which the brain requires to generate feelings of calm and well-being.


MSG, on the other hand, is a synthetically produced food additive and flavoring. Although it is structurally similar to glutamic acid, MSG contains a greater percentage of glutamate than is naturally occurring in foods.

It used to be extracted from ingredients like sea vegetable broth, wheat, and soybeans, but is now produced much more economically, and at a much larger scale, via fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugarcane, or molasses. Sugar beets, in particular, are often bioengineered (GMO), a process with unknown effects on the environment and long-term human health.

Is MSG safe?

Monosodium glutamate (MSG ), ingredients in wooden spoon and words " MSG " with medical stethoscope isolated on the wood table background. Unhealthy food concept. Top view. Flat lay better to do everything you love

That’s a complicated question with an even more complicated history.

MSG is on the US Food and Drug Administration’s GRAS list, an acronym for “Generally Regarded As Safe.” And while you might think that’s a good thing, being on that list comes with no actual guarantees.

As the nonprofit Consumer Reports puts it, being deemed GRAS actually means that little to no research exists on the additive’s safety, and food manufacturers are free to shoot first and ask questions later — or not at all. Some items that have been on or are on the GRAS list include probable carcinogens, GMOs, and trans fats. So having the FDA characterize MSG as GRAS is kind of like Al Capone bragging about never having been convicted. (I know, they got him on tax fraud in the end.)

MSG got a very bad rap starting in the 1970s — one that was not entirely backed up by research, and which may have been inflamed by racial prejudice aimed at Chinese people. MSG is a common ingredient in many Asian dishes and has a strong association with Chinese restaurants in the US.

Many people reported unpleasant symptoms after consuming food flavored with MSG. Headaches, numbness and tingling, flushing, muscle tightness, and generalized weakness are alleged side effects of MSG. However, these reactions all but disappear during controlled trials in which participants are unaware of whether they are consuming MSG or an inert placebo.

That said, there are still reasons to avoid or limit MSG. Several recent studies have shown that chronic MSG consumption can be toxic to the nervous system, causing an excitotoxic effect on neurons. The excessive amounts of glutamate seen in MSG may wreak havoc on normal levels of neurotransmitters and potentially contribute to neurodegeneration.

And while glutamate levels in foods are within ranges that the human body is accustomed to, there’s often no way to know just how much glutamate is in a serving of MSG, especially if it’s added to restaurant dishes or processed foods. MSG products like Ac’cent or Aji-No-Moto don’t disclose this information, as it’s not a required line item on the Nutrition Facts part of the packaging.

For these reasons, you may want to avoid foods containing added MSG and stick to glutamate that occurs naturally in food.

Animal Products and Umami

Many animal products are rich in umami, with meat, seafood, and cheese among the most intense. When you cook meat, glutamic acid is released along with other umami-producing compounds. Aging and fermenting typically concentrate these compounds, accounting for the intense umami tastes of cured ham, aged cheeses, and the like.

Cooking meat, and especially grilling, frying, or roasting, also contributes to the umami taste through the Maillard reaction. But this is the same reaction that creates the formation of acrylamide, which may have carcinogenic effects.

That’s one reason animal products, especially cured meats and cheese, can increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Cooked meats also form other harmful compounds, including TMAO. And dairy products can contain hormones and antibiotics, contributing to the risk of cancer and antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

These days, it may be far safer and healthier to get your umami from the produce section. Fortunately, there are many other umami foods to choose from.

Plant-Based Umami Foods

While humans may have evolved our love of umami to keep us from getting sick from undercooked meat, we can also find the fifth flavor in select plant-based foods.


Slow Roasted Tomatoes

Tomatoes are naturally rich in glutamic acid. When you cook tomatoes, you concentrate those glutamates, intensifying their umaminess (I thought my spellchecker would have a problem with that word, but apparently it really exists. Who knew?). Sun-drying concentrates those flavors even more, creating a potent umami taste that can contribute to mouthwatering salads, pizzas, and sauces.

To find out more about the health benefits of tomatoes, including a recipe for Umami Sun-dried Tomato and Almond Burgers, check out our comprehensive article, here.


Fried mushrooms with fresh herbs in black cast iron pan.

While all mushrooms, even white buttons, have some umami qualities, varieties like shiitake and porcini contain a large amount of natural glutamates. Cooking makes their umami taste even more pronounced.

For a deep dive into the world of edible fungi, check out our article on The Power of Mushrooms: Nutrition, Benefits, & Risks of Edible Mushrooms.


Korean seaweed soup

Seaweeds are rich in glutamic acid, which makes historical sense since umami was first identified and extracted from seaweed broth. Certain varieties, kombu (or kelp) in particular, are packed with umamimity (Ha! My spellchecker informs me that I just used an umami word that doesn’t exist yet!).

If you’d like to learn more about sea vegetables, check out our in-depth article, Are Sea Vegetables Good for You and the Planet? — And Are Some Better Than Others?

Fermented Foods

Japanese vegan foods made from soybeans include natto, miso, tofu, soy sauce, bean sprouts, and many others.

While some soy-derived foods, such as tofu, are famous for their blandness (taking on flavor profiles from marinating and cooking), once the humble soybean has been fermented, we’re talking umami fireworks. Fermented soy foods include tempeh, natto, miso, and soy sauce.

And while we’re talking about bland, let’s not forget the poster child: boiled white cabbage. But once you subject cabbage leaves to fermentation, such as in sauerkraut and kimchi, umami is in the house!

Hard and aged cheeses are also umami powerhouses, which means that cultured plant-based cheeses can also achieve umami greatness.

For more on the wide world of fermented foods, along with their health benefits (and some concerns), here’s our full article.

Matcha Green Tea

Green matcha tea powder in cups with traditional iron kettle. Bajic

You might be surprised to find out that you can experience umami yumminess in green tea — unless you’re already a fan of healthy and delicious matcha. In this case, the umami taste comes not primarily from glutamic acid, but from another amino acid called L-theanine in combination with caffeine. The compound is found in all tea plants but breaks down in the sun, but plants designated for matcha are grown mostly in shade.

The polyphenols in green tea also may protect you against neurotoxicity, including that induced by consuming large quantities of glutamate.

For more on the stunning health benefits of matcha tea, here’s our full article.

Nutritional Yeast

vegan nutritional yeast flakes in bowl

Nutritional yeast may be the plant-based umami poster child, imparting a cheesy, savory flavor that has helped many a parmesan lover transition to a dairy-free diet. Like all yeast-based products, it contains glutamic acid.

If you aren’t familiar with nooch, as it’s fondly called by those who love it, check out our comprehensive article, here.

Nuts and Seeds

Top view of a black table filled with a large assortment of nuts like pistachios, hazelnut, pine nut, almonds, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, cashew and walnuts. Nuts are in brown bowls. Predominant color is brown. DSRL studio photo taken with Canon EOS 5D Mk II and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

Nuts and seeds are chock-full of amino acids, including glutamic acid. This may not be news, however, given that one of the words commonly used to describe umami is “nutty.”

Included in this group are peanuts, even though they’re technically legumes.

If you’re looking for the umamiest (yay, another new word!) experience in the world of nuts and seeds, you’ll find that peanuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and hemp seeds have the highest concentrations of glutamic acid.

Umami Recipes

Now that you know the many foods that create that delectable fifth taste, it’s time to put it into action and have some tasty fun in the kitchen. From savory breakfast to rich umami pasta bakes, there is something for everyone in this tantalizing recipe roundup!

1. Japanese-Inspired Breakfast Bowl

Japanese-Inspired Breakfast Bowl

If there is one thing we love about Japanese cuisine (and there are many), it’s how well it captures the essence of umami. So it’s no surprise that this Japanese-Inspired Breakfast Bowl contains so many nourishing umami ingredients. From the tomato to the tamari, sea veggies, miso, and mushrooms, this dish takes inspiration from classic Japanese breakfast staples to create an umami-riffic meal that is satisfying in so many ways.

2. Umami Vegan Dashi

Umami Vegan Dashi

Dashi is a traditional Japanese seaweed stock that has a savory, salty, and umami flavor. Drawing inspiration from classic recipes, we created an ultra-nourishing and mineral-rich plant-based version using green onion, shiitake mushrooms, and seaweed. Together with the miso paste, these ingredients make a delicious and soothing stock that is great for your health and offers a rich umami taste you will adore!

3. Rainbow Millet Roll with Miso Peanut Sauce

Rainbow Millet Roll with Miso Peanut Sauce

Set aside what you may think of as sushi and take the nontraditional route by using millet instead of rice, peanut sauce instead of soy sauce, and, of course, veggies instead of fish. What is traditional about this roll is the nutrient-packed nori seaweed that lends its crunchy texture and signature umami flavor. What’s more, the delightful miso peanut dipping sauce cranks the umami meter of this recipe up to 11!

4. Kale Caesar Salad with Cheesy Chickpea Croutons

Kale Caesar with Chickpea Croutons

As we mentioned before, nutritional yeast may be the plant-based umami poster child thanks to its cheesy, savory flavor that is irresistible. As a toothsome cheese substitute, when combined with miso paste, these two umami ingredients elevate even the simplest of recipes. Savory, cheesy, creamy, and crunchy, this salad has the makings to be one of our dreamiest. Plus, the Dehydrated Cheesy Chickpea Croutons add a special touch that will keep you coming back to this recipe again and again!

5. Creamy Veggie Ramen

Have you ever wondered what gives ramen that remarkable flavor that you can’t quite put your finger on? If you guessed the broth, you’d be right — sort of. In reality, it’s the umami ingredients in the broth that make ramen a savory, craveable, and slurpable delight. While there are many ways to enjoy ramen, our Creamy Veggie Ramen is simply the best (in our humble opinion). Infused with fragrant aromatic vegetables, umami-rich mushrooms, miso, and a blend of creamy coconut, this is one recipe you won’t want to pass up!

6. Tempeh Sausage Stuffing

Tempeh Sausage Stuffing

Tempeh Sausage Stuffing is one of those dishes you look forward to consuming, partly for all that umami flavor and also for the crunchy texture! The tempeh (which is fermented and has lots of umami flavor in its own right) and whole grain bread absorb the essence of the earthy mushrooms, Worcestershire sauce, and aromatic herbs and spices, creating a medley of savory richness that is simply satisfying. As the dish bakes, the flavors concentrate, making an umami-delicious dish that is perfect for sharing!

7. Broccoli and Tomato Pasta Bake

Broccoli and Tomato Pasta Bake

What’s not to love about a rich and cheesy pasta dish? In our Broccoli and Tomato Pasta Bake, nutritional yeast and creamy cashews complement the sweet and savory tones of broccoli and tomato to create a captivating combination of textures, umami-rich flavors, and nutrients. We encourage you to add other veggies that you know the family will love, as well — after all, this recipe is likely going to be in continuous rotation!

Embrace Natural Umami

Umami is a complex, nuanced taste that transcends traditional Western flavor categories. It originated within the Japanese culinary tradition and, over the past 40 years, has enchanted gourmets and gourmands around the globe.

Although umami is often associated with MSG, there may be significant differences in how synthetic glutamate acts in our bodies compared to natural sources. And while the umami receptors may have evolved to guide us to favor well-cooked meat, there are plenty of plant-based sources of umami to enjoy. Try some of the recipes above to put umami’s transformative power into culinary practice.

Tell us in the comments:

  • When did you first hear about umami, the “fifth flavor”?

  • What are your favorite plant-based umami foods?

  • Which umami-rich dish or recipe will you try next?

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