What is umami?

In a nutshell, Umami translated from Japanese as “essence of deliciousness” was described and named by the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 and is thought as the savoury / meaty taste that results from the stimulation of the receptors in our taste buds by molecules such as amino acids (glutamic acid in the form of glutamate) and nucleotides (5’-inosinate and 5’-guanylate) (Kurihara, 2015).
Though discovered over 100 years ago, Umami was only recognised in the early 2000s as a basic taste alongside sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Each taste is thought to fulfil an evolutionary purpose to either keep us away from poisonous or spoiled food or draw us to energy-dense and nutritious food (Mouritsen & Styrbæk, 2014).Many humans experience umami for the first time due to amino acids in mother’s milk, where glutamic acid exhibits the highest concentration in total amino acid as well as free amino acid contents. The free (unbound) glutamic acid in form of its salt glutamate is the main nutrient responsible for unleashing the umami taste (Ballard & Morrow, 2013; Csapó & Salamon, 2009). Research so far has led to the conclusion that umami taste is an important part of evolution to detect nutritious and protein-rich food which contains essential building blocks for our development and growth. While glutamic acid is abundant in both plants and animals, the nucleotide 5’-inosinate is more abundant in meats and 5’-guanylate is mainly found in plants and mushrooms, such as Shiitake mushrooms (Kurihara, 2015).

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Ballard, O., & Morrow, A. L. (2013). Human Milk Composition. Nutrients and Bioactive Factors. In Pediatric Clinics of North America (Vol. 60, Issue 1, pp. 49–74). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcl.2012.10.002

Csapó, J., & Salamon, S. (2009). Composition of the mother’s milk I. Protein contents, amino acid composition, biological value. A review. In Alimentaria (Vol. 2, Issue 2).

Kurihara, K. (2015). Umami the Fifth Basic Taste: History of Studies on Receptor Mechanisms and Role as a Food Flavor. In BioMed Research International (Vol. 2015). Hindawi Publishing Corporation. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/189402

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Mouritsen, O., & Styrbæk, K. (2014). Umami. In Umami. Columbia University Press.