Eating Well With Kim: Umami

By: Kim Beavers Email
By: Kim Beavers Email

Question: What do potatoes and ketchup, chicken noodle soup, spaghetti with marinara, cheese and Asian cuisine have in common?

Answer: They are delicious.

But why are they delicious? They are all very different foods, but they share a common taste. They possess “umami." U-what-ee? Yes, umami (pronounced ooo-mom-ee). Umami, our fifth taste sensation (sweet, salt, sour, bitter are our four primary tastes), was discovered over 100 years ago, but didn’t come to the scientific forefront until the 1980s.

Umami is hard to describe but is something of a subtle savory taste that lends itself to a food’s deliciousness. It is a result of a combination of specific amino acids and ribonucleotides in foods (lots of science stuff). All I know is that it tastes really good. And when combined with salt, the umami factor sky rockets!

Umami is found in all of the world’s cuisines, from the vegemite in Australia, to the fish sauce in Thailand, to the soy sauce and miso in Japan, to the rich tomato dishes of South America, to good ‘ole ketchup in the U.S. of A. Typical umami foods are fermented foods like soy sauce, miso, fish sauce and anchovy paste. Tomatoes, tomato sauces and tomato paste also lend the umami taste, as do stocks like chicken, beef, seafood and vegetables. Fresh foods such as mushrooms, soy beans, carrots, Chinese cabbage, potatoes, green tea, milk and proteins like seafood, chicken, beef and pork also have that umami factor.

Many of the prepared umami products, such as soy sauce, stock, ketchup and so on, contain a lot of sodium, and this can be problematic for those on a low-sodium diet (which really should be all of us).

There is a reason why many of these are high in sodium. First off, salt is part of the fermentation process when making soy sauce, miso, fish sauce and anchovy paste. Also scientists discovered that when salt and umami are combined … POW! … an even greater umami level is reached. Therefore, the addition of salt to products makes the product more apt to be liked and sold. Luckily for us, umami and salt tastes are separate from each other, so you can still get that umami taste sensation without loads of salt. Additionally, studies have shown that replacing salt for umami flavors actually helps people better adapt to a salt-reduced diet. That’s even greater news!

Here are ways to add umami without adding a ton of sodium to your diet:

  • Purchase low sodium soy sauces, tomato products, cheeses and stocks.
  • Stocks and canned tomatoes even come in unsalted varieties.
  • If a savory dish calls for salt, try substituting an umami food in for the salt. Consider this: 1 teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 mg of sodium, while 1 teaspoon of reduced sodium soy sauce contains only 192 mg of sodium.
  • Use low sodium or unsalted stock instead of water when cooking grains.
  • Leftover Parmesan rinds can be frozen and put into soup broths as they simmer.
  • Roast tomatoes to boost their umami and add to sauteed vegetables or as a base for homemade pasta sauce.
  • Add mushrooms to dishes. When cooked, the juices in mushrooms impart a rich umami flavor.

For more information on umami and umami recipes, go to the Umami Information Center.

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