Dear Straight Dope:
Sweet, bitter, salty and sour are what we all learned as the four basic tastes. But the past few years, I've read several articles that refer to a "new" taste called "umami." In the articles I've read, it's never very clearly described, and I'm not even sure if researchers agree that it counts as a separate taste category. Any chance you could give us the straight dope on this flavor?
Janet Zimmerman, San Francisco, CA
Ah, taste . . . right up there with sight, as far as I’m concerned. Whether it’s Fruit Loops or General Tso’s Chicken, I’m happy to tackle any questions about food. After all, all the taste I’ve got is in my mouth, or so I’ve been told.
In any case, yes, indeed, there is a fifth taste known as "umami" (that’s "oo-MOM-mee," and I shudder to think of when the term might be uttered when the speaker is not referring to taste). This is the term that’s been given to the taste associated with monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
Monosodium glutamate is the salt form of glutamic acid, a non-essential amino acid. It’s found naturally in many if not most edibles. The flavor, though, is apparently substantially different than just plain salt, and has been described as "meaty." The taste bud receptor for this taste was discovered in 1996, although the Japanese have supposedly been aware of it as a separate taste since around the turn of the century.
While MSG occurs naturally in all kinds of foods, it is also added to many others. Most processed foods have some MSG added, since it’s been known as a "flavor-enhancer" for decades. There are several methods for adding MSG to processed foods: sometimes it’s added directly; sometimes it’s added by processing other substances in a way which concentrates the MSG (hydrolyzed vegetable protein and autolyzed yeast extract are examples). In any case, if you eat any processed foods at all, chances are you’re getting more MSG than you’d be getting if everything you ate came out of your own garden.
This is not seen as a good thing by many. On November 4th, 1991, CBS ran a "60 Minutes" segment on people who are supposedly "sensitive" to MSG. These people blame MSG sensitivity for everything from slight headaches to migraines to nausea and diarrhea to death. The number of people who are sensitive varies greatly, depending on who you listen to: in the "60 Minutes" story, Michael Taylor, Deputy of Policy for the FDA, stated that possibly 2% of the U.S. population is MSG reactive, about 5,000,000; a chart called "Major Causes of Restaurant Syndrome" in the Jan-Feb 1987 NER Allergy Proc. Book, Vol 8, No 1, estimates that 15 to 20% of our population is sensitive, about 50,000,000; Dr. George Schwartz, M.D., author of In Bad Taste: The MSG Symptom Complex, believes the numbers are much higher, perhaps 40% to 50%.
Naturally, the processed food industry scoffs, citing the fact that MSG occurs naturally, even in the human body. On the other hand, "natural" substances cause various allergies and sensitivities in millions of people daily, so it seems plausible to me that increased amounts of a "naturally-occurring substance" could, indeed, set off someone’s internal red alert. Fortunately for me, I don’t suffer any of the symptoms normally associated with MSG sensitivity, so my Doritos are safe. For more information on MSG senstivities put out by the people who supposedly suffer from them, see www.nomsg.com (this is most definitely an anti-MSG website, so please take everything you read with a grain of sodium, mono-glutamated or not; I don’t offer this site as the definitive word on MSG sensitivities, simply as a place to read one side of the argument).
So, Janet, the next time you have some of General Tso’s Chicken and think to yourself, "mmmm, meaty," take pride in knowing that your umami-receptors are functioning admirably. And make sure you’ve got your Excedrin with you, just in case.
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