Umami is one of the five basic tastes, alongside sweet, bitter, salty, and sour.
It was discovered over a century ago and is best described as a savory or “meaty” flavor. The word “umami” is Japanese and means “a pleasant savory taste.”
Scientifically speaking, umami refers to the taste of glutamate, inosinate, or guanylate. Glutamate — or glutamic acid — is a common amino acid in vegetable and animal proteins. Inosinate is mainly found in meats, while guanylate is more abundant in plants ().
Like the other basic tastes, detecting umami is essential for survival. Umami compounds are typically found in high-protein foods, so tasting umami tells your body that a food contains protein.
In response, your body secretes saliva and digestive juices to help digest these proteins (2).
Aside from digestion, umami-rich foods may have potential health benefits. For instance, studies show that they’re more filling. Thus, choosing more umami-rich foods may aid weight loss by curbing your appetite (, ).
Here are 16 umami foods with surprising health benefits.
Seaweeds are low in calories but packed with nutrients and antioxidants.
They’re also a great source of umami flavor due to their high glutamate content. That’s why kombu seaweeds are often used to add depth to broths and sauces in Japanese cuisine.
Here is the glutamate content for a variety of kombu seaweeds per 3.5 ounces (100 grams):
- Rausu kombu: 2,290–3,380 mg
- Ma kombu: 1,610–3,200 mg
- Rishiri kombu: 1,490–1,980 mg
- Hidaka kombu: 1,260–1,340 mg
- Naga kombu: 240–1,400 mg
Nori seaweed is also high in glutamate — providing 550–1,350 mg per 3.5 ounces (100 grams).
While most seaweeds are high in glutamate, wakame seaweed is an exception with only 2–50 mg of glutamate per 3.5 ounces (100 grams). That said, it’s still very healthy.
Summary Kombu and nori seaweeds are high in the umami compound glutamate. That’s why they’re often used in broths or sauces to add depth in Japanese cuisine.
Soy foods are made from soybeans, a legume that is a staple in Asian cuisine.
Though soybeans can be eaten whole, they’re commonly fermented or processed into various products, such as tofu, tempeh, miso, and soy sauce.
Interestingly, processing and fermenting soybeans raise their total glutamate content, As proteins are broken down into free amino acids, particularly glutamic acid ().
Here is the glutamate content for a variety of soy-based foods per 3.5 ounces (100 grams):
- Soy sauce: 400–1,700 mg
- Miso: 200–700 mg
- Natto (fermented soybeans): 140 mg
- Soybeans: 70–80 mg
Though soy is controversial due to its phytoestrogen content, eating soy-based foods has been linked to various benefits, including lower blood cholesterol, improved fertility in women, and fewer menopause symptoms (, , ).
Summary Soy-based foods are naturally high in the umami compound glutamate. Fermented soy-based foods are especially high, as fermentation can break down proteins into free amino acids, such as glutamic acid.
Aged cheeses are high in the umami compound glutamate as well.
As cheeses age, their proteins break down into free amino acids through a process called proteolysis. This raises their levels of free glutamic acid (9).
Here is the glutamate content for a variety of aged cheeses per 3.5 ounces (100 grams):
- Parmesan (Parmigiano Reggiano): 1,200–1,680 mg
- Comte cheese: 539–1,570 mg
- Cabrales: 760 mg
- Roquefort: 471 mg
- Emmental cheese: 310 mg
- Gouda: 124–295 mg
- Cheddar: 120–180 mg
Cheeses that are aged the longest, such as Italian parmesan — which is aged 24–30 months — typically have the most umami taste. That’s why even a tiny amount can significantly boost the flavor of a dish (9).
Summary Cheeses that have been aged longer have a stronger umami taste, as they go through more proteolysis — a process that breaks down protein into free amino acids, such as glutamic acid.
Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish made from vegetables and spices.
Proteases break down protein molecules in kimchi into free amino acids through the process proteolysis. This raises kimchi’s levels of the umami compound glutamic acid.
That’s why kimchi contains an impressive 240 mg of glutamate per 3.5 ounces (100 grams).
Not only is kimchi high in umami compounds, but it’s also incredibly healthy and has been linked to health benefits, such as improved digestion and lower blood cholesterol levels (, ).
Summary Kimchi contains an impressive 240 mg of glutamate per 3.5 ounces (100 grams). It’s high in umami compounds as a result of fermentation with Bacillus bacteria.
Green tea is a popular and incredibly healthy beverage.
Additionally, green tea is high in glutamate, which is why it has a unique sweet, bitter, and umami taste. Dried green tea contains 220–670 mg of glutamate per 3.5 ounces (100 grams).
This drink is also high in theanine, an amino acid that has a similar structure to glutamate. Studies show that theanine also plays a role in its high umami compound levels (17, ).
Meanwhile, green tea’s bitterness comes mainly from substances called catechins and tannins (, ).
Summary Green tea contains 220–670 mg of glutamate per 3.5 ounces (100 grams), which is why it has a unique sweet, bitter, and umami taste. It’s also high in theanine — which has a similar structure to glutamate and can raise its umami compound levels.
Many types of seafood are high in umami compounds.
Seafood can naturally contain both glutamate and inosinate — also known as disodium inosinate. Inosinate is another umami compound that is often used as a food additive (21).
Here are the glutamate and inosinate contents for different types of seafood per 3.5 ounces (100 grams):
|Dried baby sardines||40–50 mg||350–800 mg|
|Bonito flakes||30–40 mg||470–700 mg|
|Bonito fish||1–10 mg||130–270 mg|
|Tuna||1–10 mg||250–360 mg|
|Yellowtail||5–9 mg||230–290 mg|
|Sardines||10–20 mg||280 mg|
|Mackerel||10–30 mg||130–280 mg|
|Cod||5–10 mg||180 mg|
|Shrimp||120 mg||90 mg|
|Scallops||140 mg||0 mg|
|Anchovies||630 mg||0 mg|
Glutamate and disodium inosinate have a synergistic effect on each other, which raises the overall umami taste of foods that contain both ().
That’s one reason why chefs pair glutamate-rich foods with disodium inosinate-rich foods to enhance the overall flavor of a dish.
Summary Many fish and shellfish are high in glutamate and — especially — inosinate, another umami compound present mainly in animal products. Glutamate and inosinate have a synergistic effect on each other, boosting the overall umami flavor of food.
Meats are another food group that is typically high in umami flavor.
Like seafood, they naturally contain glutamate and inosinate.
Here are the glutamate and inosinate contents for different meats per 3.5 ounces (100 grams):
|Bacon||198 mg||30 mg|
|Dry/cured ham||340 mg||0 mg|
|Pork||10 mg||230 mg|
|Beef||10 mg||80 mg|
|Chicken||20–50 mg||150–230 mg|
Dried, aged, or processed meats have considerably more glutamic acid than fresh meats, as these processes break down complete proteins and release free glutamic acid.
Chicken egg yolks — though not a meat — are sources of umami flavor as well, providing 10–20 mg of glutamate per 3.5 ounces (100 grams).
Summary Like seafood, meats are a good source of glutamate and inosinate. Dried, aged, or processed meats contain the most glutamic acid.
Tomatoes are one of the best plant-based sources of umami flavor.
In fact, their sweet-yet-savory flavor comes from their high glutamic acid content.
Regular tomatoes contain 150–250 mg of glutamic acid per 3.5 ounces (100 grams), while cherry tomatoes provide 170–280 mg in the same serving.
In addition, the glutamic acid levels of tomatoes continue to rise as they ripen ().
Drying tomatoes can also raise their umami flavor, as the process reduces moisture and concentrates the glutamate. Dried tomatoes contain 650–1,140 mg of glutamic acid per 3.5 ounces (100 grams).
Aside from glutamic acid, tomatoes are also a good source of several vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium, folate, and plant-based antioxidants ().
Summary Tomatoes are a great source of umami flavor and contain 150–250 mg of glutamic acid per 3.5 ounces (100 grams). Dried tomatoes are more concentrated, providing 650–1,140 mg in the same serving.
Mushrooms are another great plant-based source of umami flavor.
Just like tomatoes, drying mushrooms can significantly increase their glutamate content.
Here is the glutamate content for a variety of mushrooms per 3.5 ounces (100 grams):
- Dried shiitake mushroom: 1,060 mg
- Shimeji mushroom: 140 mg
- Enoki mushroom: 90–134 mg
- Common mushroom: 40–110 mg
- Truffles: 60–80 mg
- Shiitake mushroom: 70 mg
Mushrooms are also packed with nutrients, including B vitamins, and have been linked to potential health benefits, such as improved immunity and cholesterol levels ().
They’re also versatile, delicious, and easy to add to your diet — both raw and cooked.
Summary Mushrooms — especially dried mushrooms — are a great plant-based source of glutamic acid. They’re also easy to add to your diet, making them an easy way to boost the overall umami flavor of your dishes.
Aside from the above food items, several other foods are also high in umami taste.
Here is the glutamate content for other high-umami foods per 3.5 ounces (100 grams):
- Marmite (a flavored yeast spread): 1,960 mg
- Oyster sauce: 900 mg
- Corn: 70–110 mg
- Green peas: 110 mg
- Garlic: 100 mg
- Lotus root: 100 mg
- Potatoes: 30–100 mg
Among these foods, Marmite and oyster sauce have the highest glutamate content. Marmite is high in umami flavor, as it’s fermented with yeast, while oyster sauce is umami-rich, as it’s made with boiled oysters or oyster extract, which are high in glutamate.
However, keep in mind that both of these products are generally used in small quantities.
Summary Foods like Marmite, oyster sauce, corn, green peas, garlic, lotus root, and potatoes are also good sources of umami flavor due to their high glutamate content.
Umami is one of the five basic tastes and is best described as a savory or “meaty” flavor.
The umami taste comes from the presence of the amino acid glutamate — or glutamic acid — or the compounds inosinate or guanylate, which are typically present in high-protein foods.
Umami not only boosts the flavor of dishes but may also help curb your appetite.
Some foods that are high in umami compounds are seafood, meats, aged cheeses, seaweeds, soy foods, mushrooms, tomatoes, kimchi, green tea, and many others.
Try adding a few umami-rich foods to your diet to reap their flavor and health benefits.