Good Umami, Bad Umami

Good Umami, Bad Umami

Umami: The 5th Flavor

We all know the flavors SWEET, SALTY, SOUR and BITTER, but not everyone knows the 5th flavor called umami. There are actually many seemingly opposite tasting foods that share the umami flavor: bacon and chocolate, sauerkraut and mushrooms, and tomatoes and cheese. What they all have in common is an amino acid called glutamic acid and the people who love these foods simply describe them as delicious.

Umami is a Japanese word meaning “pleasant savory taste” and the taste comes from foods rich in glutamic acid. The flavor is often described as earthy and sometimes confused with saltiness. Umami adds depth and richness that salt alone cannot provide.  The savory umami taste can come from naturally occurring glutamic acid in unprocessed foods – Good Umami – or artificially added MSG in processed foods – Bad Umami. Before we break down which umami foods fall into which category, let’s first examine the history of umami.

Umami Was Discovered in Natural Kombu Seaweed

Umami was identified in 1908 by Tokyo Imperial University chemist professor Kikunae Ikeda by studying the chemical composition of kombu that was commonly eaten in the broth dashi – what was making the kombu broth so delicious? Ikeda isolated the brown crystals of glutamic acid and figured out how to mass-produce the umami glutamate flavor as the chemical MSG – monosodium glutamate. Although Ikeda discovered the natural glutamic acid in a sea vegetable, for commercial production he patented a system of isolating and extracting MSG from wheat and defatted soybeans. This chemically extracted and processed free glutamic acid became a major component in successful commercially processed foods to enhance their umami flavors and has taken a toll on our health.

Why is MSG Unhealthy?

In the Short Term
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the sodium salt of the amino acid glutamic acid. This higher concentrated MSG is used as a food additive flavor enhancer to achieve an artificial umami taste. Symptomatic reactions to MSG are common and called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” or MSG Symptom Complex and symptoms can include: migraine headaches, rashes, nausea, burning sensations, tingling, chest pain and rapid heartbeat. Reading labels to avoid MSG isn’t so simple. There are many food additives with many names disguised as MSG – see the the BAD UMAMI chart below. Naturally occurring glutamate in whole foods is processed differently in the body and doesn’t typically cause any adverse effects.

In the Long Term
Research has also found that chemical additives labeled EXCITOTOXINS like MSG (including carrageenan, natural flavors), aspartame (Nutrasweet), L-cysteine (food additive derived from human hair found in bread products – yes!) and casein (derived from cow’s milk) cause damage over time to your brain cells. These toxins potentially trigger or worsen learning disabilities, Lou Gehrig’s disease as well as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. The book “Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills” by neurosurgeon Dr. Russell Blaylock examines just how and why these artificial food ingredients pose a real threat to our health and our population.

Bad Umami

Avoid These MSG Ingredients

MSG IngredientsMSG Created in Processing
Ingredients Causing MSG-like Reactions
Glutamate/Glutamic Acid
Monosodium Glutamate
Calcium Glutamate
Monopotassium Glutamate
Magnesium Glutamate
Autolyzed Yeast
Yeast Food/Yeast Nutrient
Yeast Extract/Torula Yeast
Sodium Caseinate/Calcium Caseinate
Textured Protein/Hydrolyzed Protein
Whey Protein/Whey Protein Isolate
Soy Protein/Soy Protein Isolate
Protein Fortified
Enzyme Modified
Soy Sauce
Natural Flavors
Barley Malt/Malt Flavoring/Malt Extract
Citric Acid
Brewer's Yeast
Anything Ultra-Pasteurized
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Modified Food Starch
Corn Starch
Balsamic Vinegar
Rice Syrup/Brown Rice Syrup
Amino Acid Chelates
Milk Powder
Low Fat Milks
Reduced Fat Milks
Anything Pasturized
Anything Enriched

Good Umami

Enjoy 12 Healthy Real Umami Foods

Umami Pantry StaplesUmami VeggiesUmami Proteins
Coconut Aminos
Red Boat Fish Sauce
Nutritional Yeast
Kombu, Nori
Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Dried Shitake Mushrooms
Probiotic Ferments
Bone Broths
Naturally Cured Bacon
Clams, Scallops
Sardines, Anchovies

1. Coconut Aminos (instead of soy sauce)

~ It’s easy to make the switch to coconut aminos from traditional soy sauce. Some brands are sweeter than others – I tend to like the saltier version – but all will add loads of umami to your meals without using GMO-soy or MSG. My favorite is made by COCONUT SECRET. If you do like a sweeter sauce, then BIG TREE makes a sweeter coconut aminos.

2. Red Boat Fish Sauce

~ RED BOAT is made from only two ingredients: fresh caught wild black anchovies and sea salt. It’s also free from added water, MSG, and preservatives. Fish sauce can really improve Asian dishes but also non-Asian stews and even salad dressings.

3. Nutritional Yeast (instead of parmesan cheese)

~ If you consume dairy, then parm is the umami cheese queen. If you don’t eat cheese and want a similar flavor profile, nutritional yeast is the bomb! You can use it plain or make a NU-YEAST spice shaker to have on hand for recipes and to add with your salt and pepper shaker for serving. Not only is it delicious on so many foods, for vegans and vegetarians, it’s a source of complete protein and very high in B-complex vitamins making it a great superfood!

4. Chocolate

~ Yes, chocolate also imparts its own umami depth of flavor on its own or in sweet and savory dishes alike. The BEST umami chocolate bar is LULU’S SMOKED SEA SALT ALMOND – you should really get one to double check and make sure I’m right 🙂

5. Seaweed: Kombu & Nori

~Add these original umami (remember glutamic acid was first discovered in kombu) sea veggies to your broths and soups to add umami plus many healthful minerals, trace minerals and vitamins – a win, win, win, win!

6. Sun-Dried Tomatoes

~While raw tomatoes and tomato sauce both have umami too, adding sun dried tomatoes to your salads, soups, and other entrées will boost the most umami in your recipes.

7. Dried Shitake Mushrooms

~Like sun-dried tomatoes, dried mushrooms add a great earthy and complex umami flavor to meals.

8. Probiotic Ferments

~ Miso is a fermented paste often made from soybeans but there is great product the company Miso Master makes called ORGANIC CHICKPEA MISO. It contains rice, chickpeas, salt, water and koji spores and has a shelf life of 18 months in the refrigerator. It adds a similar umami flavor as traditional miso and a tiny amount mixed with water can be used instead of soy sauce in some recipes.

Kimchi & Sauerkraut
~ Properly fermented cabbage like kimchi and sauerkraut introduce helpful probiotics to our bodies and also create a tasty umami flavor profile that raw or even sautéed cabbage doesn’t have. One of my favorite national companies making ferments is FARMHOUSE CULTURE.

Properly Pickled Pickles
~ Cucumbers are commonly thought of only as the only pickles, but you can pickle about anything. Mexican pickled carrots & onions can really add umami and round out a great flavorful southwestern meal. There’s also pickled: capers, watermelon, pineapple, beets, radishes, green tomatoes and even avocado. And rather than corn-based vinegar pickles, now you can make and buy properly slow fermented and salt brine pickles. I love RUUSKA PICKLES.

9. Bone Broth

~ Beef, pork and lamb bone broth have the most umami but chicken bone broth also ranks high. My 10 MINUTE BONE BROTH is great to freeze in 1 cup servings to use weekly for sautéing veggies or using the stock as the liquid in recipes.

10. Naturally Cured Bacon

~ Bacon has regained immense popularity in the past decade. Americans have relinquished a bit of their fear of fat, but what is unhealthy in most commercial bacons are unhealthful MSG ingredients. If you can go to a local pastured pork farm and buy your bacon directly without the preservatives that is best, and if you can’t, you can order via mail from Colorado based MAVERICK RANCH whose bacon is MSG, preservative and sugar-free and also from U.S. WELLNESS MEATS. For those of you who won’t take the time to order your bacon (I get it – life is busy) and regular bacon doesn’t seem to bother your body, then a better commercial brand you can buy at most Whole Foods or Co-Ops is PEDERSON’S.

11. Fish: Sardines & Anchovies

~ Salt preserved anchovies are widely known for their umami taste profile. Less known perhaps are sardines. Both sardines and anchovies are a great sources of calcium and magnesium as well as vitamins B12 and K.

12. Mollusks: Clams & Scallops

~ These incredible Omega 3-rich seafare also really pack a potent umami punch on their own or in a dish. Scallops are high in magnesium and potassium while clams are high in minerals selenium and manganese and very high in B12. My son Asher’s favorite meal is my LINGUINI & CLAMS. I’m sure you and yours will love it too!

Enjoy Adding Umami to Your Meals

I hope this post will inspire you to add more umami to your meals and feel confident about which umami foods to choose. If you want to make changes to your diet by eliminating the bad umami, just know that it may take time. MSG has penetrated almost all commercial grocery and restaurant foods. The first step is recognizing that you do have a choice and every small healthy choice you make will benefit your body 🙂

Many Wishes of Health & Gratitude,
xo Robin

For more in depth knowledge on umami – the good and the bad – below are some helpful links:
Naturally High Levels of Umami Foods
The Synergistic Effect of Umami

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