Can We Use Umami to Get People to Eat Better?

Research into umami has unlocked answers about our preferences, our recipes, and perhaps how to correct our crash course with obesity

Mr. T in DC

The human body is capable of registering five tastes—salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. And that last, funny-sounding one, is far more important than you might think. It might even, some food researchers suggest, help correct our crash-course into obesity.

Umami wasn’t even discovered until 1908, by a chemist who went on to patent the famously tasty-yet-dangerous MSG. (“Umami” comes from the Japanese word for “yummy.”) But understanding umami explains a lot of our weird food loves, writes Amy Fleming at the Guardian:

Umami is why the Romans loved liquamen, the fermented anchovy sauce that they sloshed as liberally as we do ketchup today. It is key to the bone-warming joy of gravy made from good stock, meat juices and caramelized meat and veg. It is why Marmite is my mate.

It’s not totally clear why we love umami so much. We like sweet things because they’re full of calories. We like salty things because our bodies need salt. Sour and bitter tastes signal danger. But umami seems more complicated. We tend to like it more in cooked or aged foods. It seems to have something to do with the glutamate in a food, but while glutamate often signals protein, it doesn’t always. No one really knows what makes umami so great.

But we do know that we love it. And those who think a lot about how to get people to eat right, have considered using umami to stew people away from obesity-inducing foods and towards healthier ones. Here’s the Guardian again:

Lacing cheap, fattening, non-nutritious foods with MSG to make them irresistible is clearly not responsible, but some argue that glutamate can be used responsibly to good effect. Breslin says one of his key motivations is finding ways through taste research to feed malnourished people. “What you want,” he says “are things that are very tasty that kids will eat, that will go down easy and will help them.” Meanwhile, Professor Margot Gosney, who chairs the Academic and Research Committee of the British Geriatrics Society is “looking into increasing the umami content in hospital food,” to make it more appealing to older people, without overdoing the salt.

Some studies suggest that umami makes us feel fuller, faster. Others say it doesn’t matter at all. And some scientists wonder if umami exists in the first place. Some people argue that it’s a cultural taste. Many Westerners cannot identify it in taste tests, while the Japanese can. Some say that the umami trend was a ploy to fight MSG backlash. So perhaps we should figure out whether it’s even real before we try to fix our diets with it.

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