Umami, the proven fifth taste, has enjoyed a fascinating and stellar history since its discovery in 1908. One of the high points in umami’s 110-year timeline is the World Umami Forum, which took place just last week in New York City, September 20-21.
This inaugural conference attracted food science experts, renowned researchers, food historians, journalists, registered dietitians, and culinary professionals from around the world. Participants left the meeting with a deeper understanding and appreciation of umami and its essential role in cuisine, and learned about the extensive science that refutes urban myths about monosodium glutamate (aka MSG or “umami seasoning”).
Sometimes the words used when talking about umami are a little unfamiliar. Here’s a look at the meaning of the ones you’re most likely to encounter so you can be in the know.
Glutamate – Glutamate is the common name for glutamic acid, an amino acid found in nearly all protein-containing food. It is also naturally produced by the human body.
There’s a widely held skepticism about MSG that started with a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in 1968. In an opinion piece, a physician noted radiating pain in his arms, weakness and heart palpitations after eating at Chinese restaurants, and speculated that cooking wine, MSG or excessive salt might be to blame. Readers replied that they too experienced this “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” and MSG became suspect in the public eye. Its presence at the top of people’s minds has ebbed and flowed over the past 50 years, but it is in the public consciousness enough that quite a few food labels today often still tout a food’s MSG-free status. But is MSG bad for you?
Let’s take a look at what the science has to say.
World-class chefs use MSG (monosodium glutamate) in their cooking, and perhaps you’re toying with the idea of giving it a try at home. Why should you go for it? Quite simply, because seasoning many foods with MSG makes them taste better!
Glutamate is an amino acid that is found in virtually every food. It’s a big part of protein-rich foods like meat, eggs and cheese, but is also found in fruits and vegetables. And, it is what’s responsible for giving foods the umami (savory) flavor that makes them taste delicious.
Within food, glutamate is either attached to other amino acids in the form of a protein (bound) or by itself (free). The more free glutamate there is, the more umami flavor the food will have. There are a few variables that impact how much free glutamate is in a food