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What Is Umami? 14 Foods with Natural Umami Flavor

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.

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What is umami? 

Umami is one of the five key taste profiles which also includes sweet, bitter, sour, and salt. Translated from Japanese, the word means “pleasant, savory taste,” a definition of umami with which Megan Meyer, PhD, the Director of Science Communication at the International Food Information Council Foundation, has to agree. But exactly what does umami taste like, more precisely? Others describe it as a full-bodied, meaty flavor, adds Alicia Rooker, a recipe editor, and tester for Reader’s Digest‘s sister site Taste of Home. This flavor is thanks to the amino acid L-glutamate, according to Mareya Ibrahim, a chef and author of the 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. While we’re discovering umami, here are other words that don’t have an English translation.

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Meat

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. This is how long meat should be stored in the fridge.

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Tomatoes

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.

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Seaweeds

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.

Open Oysters Fines de Claire on stone plate with lemonLisovskaya Natalia/Shutterstock

Seafood

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.

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Green tea

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. Don’t miss all these ways you can cook with tea.

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Tree nuts

Walnuts and almonds are an 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. If walnuts could talk, here’s what they would tell you

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Cheese

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. Here’s what your favorite cheese says about your personality.

Tasty sandwiches with grilled mushrooms and green onions with bran bread on a dark background, top view5PH/Shutterstock

Mushrooms

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. This is the real difference between white, cremini, and portobello mushrooms.

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Asparagus

This green veggie is another way to enjoy umami. The Umami Information Center recommends pairing asparagus with fried beef, miso sauce, and rice. Your friends will love these holiday food gifts. 

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Soy

Soy-based foods have lots of umami flavor. Soy sauce has 1264 mg of glutamate per three and a half ounces. Like most other foods on this list, soybeans have a higher glutamate content after fermentation too, research shows. Miso and soybeans are also good umami foods.

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Milk

Cow and human milk both have free glutamate. Breast milk has 22 mg of free glutamate per three and a half ounces, and cow milk has two. If milk could talk, here’s what it would tell you.

Broth in Small BowlAnna Hoychuk/Shutterstock

Bone broth, stocks, and broths

Bone broth or dashi broth with sea vegetables are wonderful, healthy ways to incorporate umami-ness into your palate, according to Ibrahim. Broths, like this one, are awesome bases for soups, stews, and sauces, or taste fantastic on their own. “Adding fish sauce to your broths and curries is a great way to get umami concentrated,” she says. This is the real difference between stock and bone broth.

Variety of raw uncooked organic potatoes different kind and colors red, yellow, purple with various of salt over dark texture background. Top view, copy spaceNatasha Breen/Shutterstock

Potatoes

Potatoes make another umami-flavored addition to soups, stocks, and broths. The glutamate in potatoes releases into the soup, making the broth umami-rich, according to the Umami Information Council. Potatoes are included in this list of extraordinary uses for everyday foods.

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Carrots

Carrots pair well with other umami foods such as meats, potatoes, broth, and asparagus. Now that you know all about foods with natural umami, check out these brilliant kitchen shortcuts to cook all that yummy food.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is an associate editor at The Healthy and a former assistant staff writer at Reader's Digest. Her work has appeared online at the Food Network and Well + Good and in print at Westchester Magazine, and more. When she's not writing about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting heavy things at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts, and liking one too many astrology memes.