14 Foods with Natural Umami
There’s natural umami flavor in meats, fish, vegetables, and dairy products.
What is umami?
Umami is one of the five key taste profiles which also includes sweet, bitter, sour, and salt. Umami foods specifically have a savory flavor, according to Megan Meyer, PhD, the Director of Science Communication at the International Food Information Council Foundation. Others describe umami as a full-bodied, meaty flavor, adds Alicia Rooker, a recipe editor, and tester for the RD.com sister-site Taste of Home. This taste is thanks to the amino acid L-glutamate, according to Mareya Ibrahim, a chef and author of the upcoming cookbook EAT LIKE YOU GIVE A FORK: The Real Dish on Eating to Thrive. The amino acid glutamate is rich in both animal and plant proteins, adds Meyer. “In addition, many foods also contain small amounts of ‘free’ glutamate, usually in the form of sodium glutamate; monosodium glutamate or MSG,” she says. “This free glutamate also gives an umami taste to such foods.” It’s also why MSG is such a popular food additive, especially in Asian cuisine, Ibrahim notes. Enjoy the taste of umami with the following foods that bring the flavor to any dish or cuisine with the help of glutamate and free glutamate.
Meat, and matured beef like beef jerky, have high levels of glutamate. There are 10 mg of free glutamate per three and a half ounces of beef, according to the Glutamate Association. Ibrahim says this is why burgers are the ultimate umami dish, especially since you can pair it with other umami foods on this list. Pork and chicken have decent amounts of glutamate and umami flavor, too. Lean beef, however, is also one of the 5 best types of meat to eat—and 2 to avoid.
This fruit is an awesome plant-source of glutamate and, thus, umami flavor with 246 mg of free glutamate per three and a half ounces of tomato, according to the Glutamate Association. As they ripen, the glutamate levels rise, too, research shows. Tomatoes are also why ketchup is great on a burger, Ibrahim says. If you don’t think tomatoes are fruit, check out the reason behind the tomato debate.
Seaweeds are another one of the umami foods high in glutamate. Depending on the type of seaweed, glutamate levels are anywhere between 1,200 to 3,000 mg per three ounces of seaweed. Traditional Japanese broths and sauces often include seaweeds thanks to their umami flavoring. In fact, the umami, savory, and salty tastes of seaweed have some people comparing fried seaweed to bacon, Fast Company reports.
Oysters, shrimp, scallops, mackerel, tuna, and sardines are just some fish with natural umami flavor. Seafood naturally contains glutamate in addition to inosinate, an umami flavor compound that occurs naturally and as a food additive. Together, glutamate and inosinate boost and bring out umami flavor, research shows. Rooker says umami compounds are not super tasty by themselves—they need other ingredients and compounds to increase palatability.
Green tea has 32 mg of free glutamate per three and a half ounces of the beverage. The tea is also high in the amino acid theanine, which research shows is similar to glutamate and also contributes to the bottom line umami flavor. A strong umami flavor is a tasty benefit of green tea like this kind, but there are also 11 health benefits of green tea you probably haven’t heard before.
Walnuts and almonds are a excellent way to add umami flavor to vegan meals. Try toasting the nuts and seeds for the best flavor. Walnuts specifically have 658 mg of free glutamate per three and a half ounces. In fact, walnuts are one of the healthiest nuts you can eat.
The older and stronger the cheese, the better the umami taste. As cheese ages, it goes through proteolysis or breaking down into amino acids and raising the levels of free glutamic acid. As Rooker explains it, umami increases in foods that undergo fermentation and ripening. Italian parmesan is one of the especially tasty umami foods because it takes 24 to 36 months for the flavor to develop fully.
Mushrooms can substitute for meat because they appeal to our taste for protein thanks to levels of umami-related compounds. The glutamate content of mushrooms also makes it a bonus for meat eaters as a topping for things like burgers or sandwiches. There’s 180 mg of free glutamate per three and a half ounces of mushrooms.