In Depth


Who's umami? Human taste now comes in five flavours

Last Updated June 1, 2007

When Craig Purdy, a New York entrepreneur, asked chef Jonathan Pratt for an innovative restaurant concept, Pratt jumped at the chance to tell him about umami.

Pizza and portabellas are known for their high umami taste. (Ann Heisenfelt/Dean Fosdick/Associated Press)

He had come to think of it as a clandestine fifth taste, added to the list of what humans already savour — salty, sweet, bitter, sour.

Pratt believed it was also the secret to getting customers to return time and again.

"A popular Hawaiian chef told me it was a craving triggered by foods with high levels of natural glutamic acid," explained Pratt. "And I thought, oh wow, I could open a restaurant where the food is actually addictive."

Now, six years later, Purdy and Pratt run Umami Café in the small village of Croton-on-Hudson, New York.

Every dish at the New York Times-acclaimed café combines at least three umami foods. Their Truffles Mac and Cheese maxes out at five or more, including wine, cream, black truffles and two cheeses — parmigiano reggiano and fontina.

When umami is an unfamiliar concept to some new customers, Pratt tells them to think about the taste of potato chips. You can't eat just one, but it's not because of the salt. If that were the case, pretzels and corn chips would be scarfed down in the same number.

It's actually the umami in the potato that turns the trick, he said. And when potato slices are fried up, they lose water content, which concentrates the glutamic acid in each mouthful.

Umami upsurge

Umami was first identified in Japan, in 1908, when Dr. Kikunae Ikeda concluded that kombu, a type of edible seaweed, had a different taste than most foods.

He conducted experiments that found that the high concentration of glutamate in kombu was what made it so tasty. From there, he crystallized monosodium glutamate (MSG), the seasoning that would become popular the world over.

Decades later, umami became scientifically defined as one of the five individual tastes sensed by receptors on the tongue.

Then in 1996, a team of University of Miami researchers studying taste perception made another breakthrough. They discovered separate taste receptor cells in the tongue for detecting umami. Before then, the concept was uncharted.

"Up until our research, the predominate wisdom in the scientific community was that umami was not a separate sense. It was just a combination of the other four qualities [salty, sweet, bitter, sour]," explained Dr. Stephen Roper, the University of Miami physiology and biophysics professor who helped zero in on the taste along with Nirupa Chaudhari, the team's lead researcher.

After the team published a paper about umami in 2000, there was an upsurge in umami talk. Suddenly, scientific journals and the mass media reported on it. Google tracked thousands of pages of discussion where before there were next to none.

A taste from "your mommy"

The team's discovery was important because umami could now be seen as an ancient sense that was part of human evolution. Moreover, they found that animals were able to savour it as well, which meant it had likely developed early on in the evolutionary process.

"Umami is not something that humans have just evolved. Glutamate taste is as fundamental as sweet, bitter, salty and sour," Roper said.

For North Americans, the flavour tends to be more difficult to identify. In Japan, it's quite easily recognized because the idea of umami is a part of the culture.

But the sense is not based on race or culture. Nearly everyone is able to sense it, although an estimated five per cent of the population has relatively low sensitivity to umami taste.

Scientists think it might be a measure for determining the protein content of food, which is essential for survival: "If umami is a signal for protein, it's a food stuff that we want and need to consume — and indeed it is a universally-preferred taste about our basic nutritional requirements," explained Roper.

How do you know you're tasting it?

Foods high in protein are the ones best for sensing umami. Parmesan cheese, the quintessential umami reference, is high in protein, and aged, which means moisture escapes and glutamate concentrates.

Similarly, cured prosciuto has high levels of it as well.

The flavour also comes in vegetarian form. It's the "meaty" taste especially present in juicy beefsteak tomatoes (the riper the better), sugar snap peas, grapefruit, tofu and shiitake mushrooms.

Piles of umami toppings on pizza — tomatoes, pepperoni, mozzarella and mushrooms — could very well be responsible for why people, and especially kids, love it.

MSG connection

The taste of MSG is a good signifier of how umami is set off by other substances. The seasoning isn't palatable on its own (it's like brownies without the called-for pinch of salt).

In the 1960s, Chinese food laced with MSG (crystallized umami) developed a bad rep for causing health problems in some people. Since then, studies have shown it needn't be unhealthy when used in moderation.

Many Asian foods are packed with natural umami, especially Thai cuisine, which uses fish sauce, a.k.a. umami in a bottle.

Snack food manufacturers also jumped on the umami bandwagon. Hydrolyzed protein, a form of glutamate added to snacks, is what brings shoppers back to the junk food aisle. It's the same technique Pratt uses to keep customers returning to the Umami Café.

Sometimes people even beg for it, he said. They ask for his dishes "like it's the best thing they've ever tasted."

Does the umami addiction work then? "Well, from the moment we opened the café, Pratt said. "It's been busy ever since."

Go to the Top


World »

Canadian doctor on plane that crashed into Lake Michigan
A Calgary native was part of the organ transplant team believed to be dead after a plane crashed into Lake Michigan on Monday.
June 5, 2007 | 4:45 PM EDT
Iran seizes 3 Finns on fishing trip in Persian Gulf: report
Iran has arrested three Finnish men who allegedly strayed into its territorial waters during a fishing trip in the Persian Gulf, Finnish government officials said Wednesday.
June 6, 2007 | 1:56 AM EDT
Libby sentenced to 2� years in CIA leak case
Former White House aide Lewis (Scooter) Libby was sentenced to 2� years in prison Tuesday for lying and obstructing the CIA leak investigation.
June 5, 2007 | 12:11 PM EDT
more »

Canada »

Tory MP ejected from caucus after budget vote
MP Bill Casey was booted out of the Tory caucus hours after he broke ranks with his party on Tuesday night and voted against a bill to implement the federal budget.
June 5, 2007 | 10:38 PM EDT
'I have the right to live here,' says convicted rapist
The man known as the so-called balcony rapist said he will not be forced out of Surrey, B.C., and will fight anyone who challenges him.
June 5, 2007 | 11:07 PM EDT
Parents charged with raising children in drug dens
The first charges under a new law have been laid against parents whose children were allegedly found living in homes with marijuana grow-operations, Calgary police announced Monday.
June 5, 2007 | 1:54 PM EDT
more »

Health »

Australian man 'disappointed' hospital turned down kidney offer
An Australian man said Tuesday that a Toronto hospital may have turned down his offer to donate a kidney after his parents said he was being pressured to have the operation.
June 5, 2007 | 8:00 PM EDT
More Canadian women dying of strokes
Strokes kill 45 per cent more women than men and the gap between the sexes is widening, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada said Tuesday.
June 5, 2007 | 8:21 PM EDT
Coroner calls for ban on baby bath seats to avert drownings
A Canada-wide ban on baby bath seats and baby rings is needed to prevent bathtub drownings, an Ontario coroner's report says.
June 5, 2007 | 2:46 PM EDT
more »

Arts & Entertainment»

Fans line up for Bob Barker's final showcase
Wednesday marks the final taping day for Bob Barker on The Price is Right and fans have been camped for two days outside CBS studios awaiting a chance to "Come on down!"
June 5, 2007 | 5:05 PM EDT
Winnie Mandela denied entry to Canada for arts gala
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ex-wife of former South African leader Nelson Mandela, has been denied entry to Canada.
June 5, 2007 | 6:07 PM EDT
Reclusive McCarthy discusses The Road with Oprah Winfrey
Reclusive Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Cormac McCarthy emerged Tuesday for a much-anticipated interview with popular talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
June 5, 2007 | 4:19 PM EDT
more »

Technology & Science »

Criminals enlisting teens as online crime goes pro: experts
Online criminals are increasingly preying on Canadians as professional, for-profit attacks on computers grow ? and young people are swelling their ranks, experts told CBC News Online on Monday.
June 5, 2007 | 8:38 AM EDT
Impact of melting snow and ice dire: UN report
Billions of people face dramatic risks and changes to their livelihoods if snow cover, sea ice, glaciers and permafrost continue to melt amid unchecked global warming, a UN report says.
June 5, 2007 | 9:52 PM EDT
U.S. firms drop music download lawsuit against woman
Members of the U.S. recording industry have dropped a lawsuit against a disabled single mother who said she was innocent of their claims she downloaded more than 1,400 songs without authorization.
June 5, 2007 | 10:34 PM EDT
more »

Money »

Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan enters hunt for BCE
BCE announced late Tuesday that it's begun talks with a third consortium led by the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan that could lead to a bid to take the telecom giant private.
June 5, 2007 | 6:42 PM EDT
Conrad Black trial nears end
Conrad Black's racketeering and fraud trial is nearing a close with the final witnesses expected to take the stand next week and closing arguments due a week later, the judge said Tuesday.
June 5, 2007 | 7:56 PM EDT
Suit seeks overtime pay for CIBC tellers
CIBC has been hit with a $600-million lawsuit alleging the bank does not pay its tellers and front-line workers for overtime.
June 5, 2007 | 5:04 PM EDT
more »

Consumer Life »

Diamond industry watchdog unfazed by Ottawa audit
A Canadian observer of the diamond industry says the fight against "blood diamonds" is working, despite a recent report suggesting the country's commitment is inadequately funded.
June 5, 2007 | 5:41 PM EDT
Organic food still leaves environmental footprint: study
The amount of greenhouse gases emitted through shipping organic food is about the same as non-organic produce, University of Alberta researchers suggest.
June 5, 2007 | 2:38 PM EDT
Canada's food watchdog to expand screening checks for melamine
Canada's food watchdog is beefing up its monitoring program, and will hold and test shipments of all-vegetable proteins being imported into the country.
June 5, 2007 | 2:23 PM EDT
more »

Sports »

Scores: NHL NBA

Blue Jays rally by Devil Rays
Aaron Hill's bases-loaded walk capped a six-run ninth inning as the Toronto Blue Jays rallied to beat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays 12-11 on Tuesday.
June 6, 2007 | 3:09 AM EDT
Ottawa must tighten up in Game 5
Better defensive coverage will be paramount for the Ottawa Senators Wednesday (CBC, 8 p.m. ET) if they hope to keep their Stanley Cup hopes alive in Anaheim.
June 6, 2007 | 1:24 AM EDT
Federer, Henin move on at French
Roger Federer faced his first bit of adversity at the French Open on Tuesday, and then proceeded to crush Tommy Robredo in the final two sets en route to a quarter-final victory.
June 5, 2007 | 1:26 PM EDT
more »