Much has been written about sweet, sour, bitter, and salty flavors, but scientists are finally learning more about the "fifth flavor," umami. Now, researchers have brought us some truly savory news: According to a recent study, the umami flavor may actually help you make healthier choices when eating.
What is the umami flavor?
"Umami" is a Japanese word used to describe any deliciously savory tastes. The term has quietly gained popularity all over the world in recent years, often appearing beside the four most commonly described tastes. A factor that separates umami from other flavors is glutamate, which is a naturally occurring non-essential amino acid. Though glutamate is found in a wide variety of foods, it makes a big appearance in many meats and dairy products.
Some popular umami-rich foods include shiitake mushrooms, anchovies, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Many fermented products also contain umami, such as soy sauce, kimchi, and miso.
Umami Flavor Benefits
Researchers have found that consuming umami broth can help promote healthy behaviors and food choices for women at risk of obesity — and it does so by actually causing subtle changes in the brain. In a March 2018 study published in Neuropsychopharmacology, scientists studied changes in the brains of women after they ate chicken broth either with or without the addition of monosodium glutamate (MSG), a sodium salt of glutamate.
The scientists used three tools to find these changes, including a computer test, a brain scan, and a buffet meal during which the participants wore glasses that tracked their eye movements. As it turned out, those who ate the umami broth not only performed better on the computer test and had more focused gazes during the meal, but they also had more engagement with an area of the brain that helps with self-regulation of eating. For the women at risk for obesity, they actually consumed less saturated fat during the whole meal.
"Previous research in humans studied the effects of umami broths on appetite, which is typically assessed with subjective measures," said senior author Miguel Alonso-Alonso, PhD, in a press release. "Here, we extended these findings replicating the beneficial effects of umami on healthy eating in women at higher risk of obesity, and we used new laboratory measures that are sensitive and objective."
But wait, is MSG safe?
Before you rush to the nearest grocery store to buy some umami-rich food, you may catch yourself wondering about MSG, the ingredient used in the study. As you may be aware, MSG has gotten a bit of a controversial reputaion over the years for its use as a food additive in many processed foods and canned vegetables and soups. But The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that's "generally recognized as safe."
That said, Mayo Clinic has said that some people have reported negative reactions to foods containing MSG, such as headaches, flushing, and sweating. However, it's important to note that researchers have actually never found a definitive link between MSG and those bothersome symptoms, which are usually mild and don't require medical treatment.
Of course, if you find that you are sensitive to MSG, it may be best to avoid that ingredient as much as possible. But if not, the most recent research might open a new door for you to explore healthier eating habits.
"Many cultures around the world advocate drinking a broth before a meal. Our study suggests the possibility that people at high risk of obesity could benefit from an umami-rich broth before a meal to facilitate healthy eating and healthy food choice," said Dr. Alonso-Alonso. "However, here we only evaluated immediate effects and in a laboratory context. Future research should address whether these observed changes can accumulate and affect food intake over time and/or whether they can be leveraged to help people lose weight more successfully."
Next, learn about the tastiest superfoods that can help you live longer in the video below: