January 7, 2005 10:54 PM   Subscribe

It used to be that there were four basic tastes- Sour, Sweet, Salty, and Bitter. Now there are five. Umami is the fifth. More commonly thought of as "Savory", the taste is connected to receptors that sense Glutamic acid. In fact, the first taste receptor ever discovered was one that interacts with glutamate. While Monosodium Glutamate has gotten a bad reputation, most sources agree that it's relatively harmless, and in fact, does add the "more-ish" type of flavor that is ascribed to umami foods. Foods like mushrooms are high in glutamate, and therefore taste more "umami". Pass the Parmesan cheese, please.
posted by exlotuseater (42 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
ive always said the "m" stands for magic.
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 11:11 PM on January 7, 2005

Recently discussed here.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:11 PM on January 7, 2005

Someone else get a copy of Robert Wolke's What Einstein Told His Cook for the Holidays?
posted by kcds at 11:19 PM on January 7, 2005

I hate most vegetables (the supertaster thing, maybe). And I love, love, love all the things mentioned that are high in unami. This explains some things. Huh. Also, I'm hungry now, dammit.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:16 AM on January 8, 2005

I count "hot" as one of the basic flavours. Without it, my food would be mostly useless. :)
posted by madman at 12:32 AM on January 8, 2005

Wow, I was just talking to a friend about this earlier tonight. Posted before, but thanks for the factual reminder, exlotuseater.
posted by interrobang at 1:04 AM on January 8, 2005

Doesn't 'hot' food tickle nociceptors/pain sensors? And doesn't constant, regular stimulation lead to tolerance and thus higher doses? If so, sounds familiar to characteristics of another kind of activity.
posted by Gyan at 1:26 AM on January 8, 2005

MSG is a mild neurotoxin, but by itself it's probably not that big a deal. However, MSG sensitivity isn't that uncommon, and if you don't feel good a lot of the time, try moving away from processed foods for awhile. Most foods on the shelf have significant quantities... there are many ways in which MSG can be hidden. "Natural Flavors" is a real biggie.... it's not always MSG when they say Natural Flavors, but usually is. (85%?) Any -lyzed protein is MSG. Yeast Extract is MSG.

Basically, the rule is that it has to be 90% pure to be considered MSG, so they come up with some substance that is 50% MSG, put twice as much in, and call it Natural Flavors or something else.

So how do I know this? A few years ago, I got EXTREMELY ill, to the point that the doctors were seriously wondering if I had MS, and put me through a number of tests. I had weird twitch problems, constant severe brain fog, and bad balance and coordination problems. (I could not walk heel and toe, I fell over. Ever time. And I normally have very, very good balance.) And I was weak and felt awful, all the time.

Turns out what made me sick was aspartame. It is evil, evil stuff. And cross sensitivity with MSG is very common... MSG now makes me very sick too. I have to avoid it like the plague.

Again, for normal people, MSG is probably no big deal... it's a neurotoxin, but you have so many extra nerves that losing a few extra won't do that much harm. Aspartame, on the other hand, is EVIL, and you should stay a thousand yards away from it. Use colas sweetened with Splenda instead. And if you ever do get sick from it, remember that MSG is likely to bother you too. If you need to stop aspartame because you're wondering if it's making you sick, stop MSG too. You may be able to add the MSG back in, but once you're off aspartame (a nasty withdrawal, let me tell you), don't EVER go back on it.
posted by Malor at 1:32 AM on January 8, 2005

In Europe, MSG is also known as E621 or ve-tsin, and it was originally thought to cause Chinese restaurand syndrome (later debunked). MSG is, as far as I understood it, a type of salt, and the damn thing is in *every* type of processed food - cookies, crisps, sausages, tomato sauce, the cheap cured hams you find, etc. etc. Also, every type of bouillon cube has E621 in it.

Umami is a taste that foods acquire naturally when they ripen - like old cheeses, tomatoes that boiled for a considerable time, ham that cured for years - and it's a cheap shortcut for the processed food industry: time is money, it's where the profit margin is.

I've been trying to cook and buy food that's E621-free. Not easy, but worth it, I think: with E621, everything smells and tastes the same. Try making your own chicken stock once and compare with cubes: you'll keel over.
posted by NekulturnY at 3:03 AM on January 8, 2005

Is there any recent solid scientific basis for the four basic flavors? My Chinese friends keep telling me about this flavor called ? (ma2) that they can't exactly describe—how do you describe a flavor anyway?—and as best as I can put it, hangs heavy on the tongue; and then there's this umami thing.
posted by msittig at 4:05 AM on January 8, 2005

So MSG was discovered by a Japanese early last century, yet it's popular in Chinese cooking. Does that mean that MSG was actually introduced from Japan to China, where it became a staple ingredient?
posted by sour cream at 4:11 AM on January 8, 2005

Gyan: Doesn't 'hot' food tickle nociceptors/pain sensors?

Yep: capsaicin binds to VR1 receptors, that are also activated by heat and abrasion. Since we're talking neurotoxicity ... Do we poison ourselves by eating chili peppers?
posted by raygirvan at 5:07 AM on January 8, 2005

Mmmmmm, fish sauce! Full of stinky goodness.
posted by fixedgear at 5:16 AM on January 8, 2005

MSG is, as far as I understood it, a type of salt

Not sure what you mean by this. "Salt" commonly means one of two things:

1) To chemists: A compound formed when the H+ ions of an acid (which is what makes an acid an acid) are replaced by metal ions or other electropositive ions; sodium chloride is but one example of a salt.
2) To normal people: Sodium chloride (aka table salt), for example as formed by the reaction between hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide (aka caustic soda):

HCl + NaOH -> NaCl + H2O

See how the bits (ions) swap over?

If you meant salt in sense 1 then you are correct, but this is not very meaningful. There are millions of salts. If you meant sense 2 - well, no, there's only one "type" of (table) salt. It's sodium chloride.

Glutamic acid, the acid that forms glutamate salts, is one of the twenty amino acids of human biology. Monosodium glutamate is just one of the simplest salts (sense 1) of glutamic acid. In the body, MSG quickly disassociates into sodium ions and glutamate ions. The human body can synthesize glutamic acid from simpler compounds and this, too, quickly forms glutamate ions.

MSG occurs naturally in various foods, including, as noted above, tomatoes, mushrooms, and parmesan cheese, as well as some seaweeds, from which source it was first isolated by the Japanese.

The belief that MSG is a "potent neurotoxin" is popular among believers in "alternative" medicine, crystal healing, astral projection, etc. Yeah, a potent neurotoxin that the body manufactures for itself. You do the math.
posted by kcds at 7:13 AM on January 8, 2005

Exactly. Funny that you don't see alternative medicine people campaigning against chili, which really does contain a potent neurotoxin.
posted by raygirvan at 8:13 AM on January 8, 2005

Oh no! Humans produce neurotoxins and poison themselves! That is why they voted for Bush! kcds, is there a way to purify myself of this neurotoxin? Will soy cube heat aromatherapy massages work?
posted by TwelveTwo at 8:14 AM on January 8, 2005

This link was posted before but it's a great article, the Ketchup Conundrum.
posted by BlueMetal at 8:15 AM on January 8, 2005

Just eat some of those Fat Free Pringles, TwelveTwo. It'll leak right out.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:31 AM on January 8, 2005

Exlotuseater - Did you get an Olive subscription for christmas by any chance?
posted by aqueousdan at 8:34 AM on January 8, 2005

kcds: No, I did not get Robert Wolke's What Einstein Told His Cook, but you can bet that it's now on "The List". And aqueousdan, I didn't get that either. (I wish I had gotten more reading material, actually.)

I was eating some umami-ish food last night (shiitake mushrooms), and I thought it might be a decent post. Although some have mentioned it was posted before, it didn't show up on search, or googling umami, +metafilter, or msg +metafilter. It was briefly mentioned in the prior post, and had a few mentions in the linked "Ketchup" article. (Sec. 4) Sorry I missed the other one.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:24 AM on January 8, 2005

oh, and thanks to #1 for cleaning up the link problem.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:26 AM on January 8, 2005

In low concentrations glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter used by a variety of neurons in the body. With higher concentrations over prolonged periods, excitotoxicity can occur, though the process seems to be poorly understood. Glutamate can, essentially, damage cells by overstimulation.
posted by euphorb at 9:36 AM on January 8, 2005

How about we define "potent neurotoxin", since millions of people consume capsaicin-containing foods and don't suffer from massive brain damage. I would think that a truly potent neurotoxin would cause illness and death on a regular basis.
posted by botono9 at 9:46 AM on January 8, 2005

exlotuseater - Weird, I guess it was a coincidence. The first issue of my subscription for this magazine came through the post this very morning and there's an article in there about MSG in which the author basically tells you MSG isn't only harmless but tells you more or less to go out and eat as much of it as possible. Theres a small part in there which says that Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (tiredness, dizziness etc) is caused by soy sauce rather than MSG which I can't help believing is utter nonsense.

We have a glut of all-you-can-eat chinese restaurants where we live here in Lincolnshire, UK, and EVERY time I go I end up feeling hungover the next day and even though I know Ill feel awful I still "punish" myself by eating until i'm about to pop.
posted by aqueousdan at 9:48 AM on January 8, 2005

Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, I think it is from the size of their menus. Huge menus! Man! All those numbers and crazy little symbols. It is like it is code! And they have stuff called Fun but it isn't a game, it is a dish of food. What the hell?
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:53 AM on January 8, 2005

Wolke also has a biweekly newspaper column. Here's one on umami.

If capsaisin really is such a potent neurotoxin, I am not long for this world. Time to start pigging out on Parmigiano and Chinese food, I guess. Mmmm, crispy fried intestines!
posted by casu marzu at 9:53 AM on January 8, 2005


The only effective way to rid yourself of this potent neurotoxin is a homeopathic remedy.

As I'm sure you recall, one of the tenets of homeopathy is that the weaker the solution, the stronger its effect. It just so happens that the well that supplies the water to my house, whose location was determined by dowsing (see the dowsing thread!), gives water containing absolutely no detectable MSG. It is, therefore, the most potent anti-toxin for MSG known to man (or woman). I will make small amounts of this available to you (remember, it's very potent) for the amazing price of only $19.95 per gram.

I will even dehydrate it for you before I ship it to keep shipping costs down. Just add regular tap water and it will be 100% as effective as when it left!

How many cases shall I put you down for?
posted by kcds at 10:02 AM on January 8, 2005

homeopathic remedy - so, value added water?
posted by bshort at 10:40 AM on January 8, 2005

Funny, ooOOoo Mommy! is what my kids always said when I'd make their favorite dinner (sans MSG).
posted by kamylyon at 10:47 AM on January 8, 2005

How about we define "potent neurotoxin"

I think it's best described as potent but selective; it specifically damages small unmyelinated primary sensory neurons, though there's some evidence that it can cause brain damage too. With humans, though, dosage is kept down because a) it hurts and b) it isn't taken intravenously. There are plenty of papers investigating its neurotoxicity, because of the potential as an analgesic.
posted by raygirvan at 11:16 AM on January 8, 2005

It used to be that there were four basic tastes- Sour, Sweet, Salty, and Bitter. Now there are five.

Pedanticfish: There were alwasy five basic tastes, it's just that we westerners didn't identify umami as a separate taste.

Conversely, there are cultures where there are less than seven main colours in the rainbow (ROYGBIV). Indeed, the "sophistication" (for lack of a better word from the tip of my tongue) of a culture closely parallels the number of colours it recognizes, which is to say that ancient and "primitive" cultures tend to have three or four colours (subsuming orange into red, for example). It's not that orange doesn't exist; it's just not named.

IOW, it's not that umami didn't exist, it just wasn't named by us.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:46 AM on January 8, 2005

Unami is one of my favourite food blogs!
posted by ginz at 12:23 PM on January 8, 2005

If chillis are killing us, I must be dead already, and so too must be millions of my fellow Indians. Not to mention those Thai, Malay, Indonesian, and Singaporean people.

Yes, we're all walking zombies.


/goes off to make some more fiery Tom Yam soup (without MSG)
posted by madman at 12:42 PM on January 8, 2005

It used to be that there were four basic tastes- Sour, Sweet, Salty, and Bitter. Now there are five.

But, but, but, what about chicken?

[sneaks out the side door]
posted by nofundy at 3:25 PM on January 8, 2005

MSG may be mostly harmless for most, but my mother and I are hit by insane migraines after consuming basically any amount of it.

I'd actually built up a bit of a tolerance - didn't have to read ingredient labels anymore, or anything like that - and then I basically went on a natural foods kick because I could afford it and the people I was living with wanted to as well. So we ate well and didn't have to worry about it.

A few months later, destitute, I ate one of those ramen cups. I was plenty hydrated and otherwise healthy. I'd become so used to eating whatever I wanted that I'd basically forgotten my previous sensitivities. At this point I'd eaten zero MSG in over 6 months.

Within a matter of hours, I became aphasic while talking to a friend on the phone and my field of vision began to narrow as if I was about to pass out. I worried that maybe I had a brain tumor or something and I kept trying to tell my friend that I needed to go to the hospital, but it kept coming out as nonsense. I hung up the phone crying and wondering if maybe I was going to die, then crawled into bed. My field of vision cleared - and suddenly I was smack dab in the middle of the biggest migraine I have ever felt. If I could have gotten to the phone I'd have called 911. But I couldn't. I was just beyond sapped.

There was a big thing of water next to the bed that I'd put there the night before. I would swig that as often as I could. I threw up into a garbage can next to the bed. I couldn't get up to empty the garbage can into the toilet. I'm sure the room reeked.

I didn't get out of that bed for 48 hours.

So yeah. if you're sensitive to MSG, listen to your body. Don't do what I did.
posted by u.n. owen at 4:10 PM on January 8, 2005

A big "thing" of water?
posted by five fresh fish at 4:28 PM on January 8, 2005

Ya, like a cup, mug, bottle or something. A thing of water.
posted by euphorb at 6:28 PM on January 8, 2005

I don't remember what particular vessel it was and didn't want to be untrue. It wasn't a glass per se. I forget. Thus, a "thing."
posted by u.n. owen at 8:10 PM on January 8, 2005

u.n. owen: I certainly believe you- the most important thing is to listen to your body. One of the above links states that something like 15% of the population is sensitive to MSG, and the symptomology ranges from nervous energy to the kind of experience that you had. I used to avoid MSG as a matter of course, basically because I didn't know what it was, exactly. I found out a while ago, and having no detectable problems, I am not averse to foods containing it. As Malor stated earlier in the thread, a LOT of foods that have "natural flavoring" in the ingredient list have MSG. If you folks want to talk about "real" neurotoxins, we shouldn't forget C. botulinum or tetrodotoxin, the carefully-removed component of fugu.
posted by exlotuseater at 8:35 PM on January 8, 2005

What, specifically, contains MSG?

I have no idea what umami tastes like, but I'm starting to suspect I might not like it. Mushrooms? Hate them. Oysters? I'd rather eat semen. Tomatoes? Hate them when they're raw, love them when they're cooked and de-slimy-fied. I like drizzling parmesan cheese on my ravioli and in my Caesar's salad, but beyond that I'm not a big fan. Not a big fish lover. It would be funny if my embarrassing gastronomic idiosynchracies could be explained away with something simple like umami.

Does beer contain MSG?
posted by gentle at 12:57 PM on January 9, 2005

Does beer contain MSG?

Nope, but those pringles, pretzels, chicken wings, peanuts, pizzas you eat with your beer...
posted by NekulturnY at 12:26 AM on January 10, 2005

Interesting, gentle, the idea that your dislikes would be sense and not personal taste related...

Is umami part of the goodness of sharp/pungent cheese?
posted by LavaLady at 9:51 AM on January 10, 2005

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