Taste is the number 1 reason why we choose the foods we love to eat. Sure, good health and nutrients are important to a dietitian, but taste rules. This dietitian savors the flavors of food by enhancing the taste of foods with umami (oo-mom-ee). Most of you know about the basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter, but umami is the 5th taste, with specific receptors on our tongue for this flavor enhancer. Glutamate, an amino acid, is the trigger for umami taste receptors. When we eat foods with high levels of free glutamate, we stimulate the receptors for a real taste treat. OK, enough chemistry, what can you do in the kitchen or when dining out to get umami?
What I do, and what you might do without knowing the reason, is use ingredients that pack a glutamate punch. Parmesan cheese is an “umami bomb,” says Chef Chris Koetke, Vice President of Culinary Arts at Kendall College is Chicago. So, when the wait staff asks if you want Parmesan cheese shredded or grated on your Caesar Salad or pasta, Chef Koetke suggests you say, “yes, please!” Foods that are aged or ripened are also great sources of umami, think of aged cheddar cheese or a vine-ripened tomato. Mushrooms are also umami-rich; I make a meat blend of 2/3 ground beef or turkey with 1/3 chopped mushrooms for a delicious burger or meat mixture for tacos, chili or pasta sauce. Not only does the umami-rich mushrooms bump up the taste, they also cut the fat, calories and sodium of the dish while adding a serving of veggies. (Some restaurants serve “Umami Burgers” that are made with a meat-mushroom blend). Many Asian cuisine use fermented ingredients, like fish or soy sauce, to add umami. Another trick is to use monosodium glutamate (MSG) at home to enhance flavor and reduce sodium intake. MSG is a simply a sodium salt of glutamate. “Using 2/3 salt and 1/3 MSG means a 25% reduction in sodium,” says Chef Koetke. While MSG has gotten a bad rap, Katherine Zeratsky, RDN, LD, Mayo Clinic, says MSG has been used as a food additive for decades. “Over the years, the FDA has received many anecdotal reports of adverse reactions to foods containing MSG, however researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms.” For those who choose not to use MSG, labels clearly identify it.” For more on MSG, see Katherine’s article at http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/monosodium-glutamate/faq-20058196