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Do you love the taste of ripe tomatoes? Do you pile on the Parmesan cheese any chance you get? Both tomatoes and Parmesan cheese are examples of umami foods, which some people especially enjoy because they're more sensitive to the umami flavor. An AncestryDNA® test can tell you if your DNA suggests you're extra sensitive to umami.

What Does Umami Taste Like?

Umami is a pleasant savory or meaty taste. It's one of the five taste categories of food (along with bitter, sour, sweet, and salty). Although umami is often associated with the rich, savory taste of meaty broth, there are many foods that create a similar sensation in your mouth.

Fermented or aged products, like cheese and soy sauce for instance, have an umami taste. Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda identified the fifth taste in 1908 and coined the term "umami" from the Japanese word umai, which means "delicious." About a year later, Ikeda began producing an additive that enhanced the flavor, or umami, in foods: monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Genetics of Umami Sensitivity

Like bitter taste sensitivity and sweet sensitivity, there's a genetic component that affects your perception of (and thus preference for) the umami taste. This means if your biological mom and dad both are more sensitive to umami, the odds are pretty good that you'll be more sensitive too.

But whether or not you like umami foods depends on many factors. Your taste preferences are also heavily influenced by your environment, such as your regular diet and how often you're exposed to a particular food. For instance, scientists have learned that what a pregnant woman eats can affect her child's food preferences later on.

What Science Says About Umami Sensitivity

Research shows that foods with strong umami flavor usually have large amounts of the amino acid glutamate. Glutamate molecules bind to a specific set of taste receptors on the tongue, which is a big part of why we taste umami. When you cook meat, age cheese, or ferment soy, the process releases more amino acids, so the savory taste is enhanced.

Scientists also know that a cluster of three genes called the TAS1R family, which live on chromosome 1, are responsible for both sweet and savory taste perception. Certain variants, or DNA differences, in one of the three genes (TAS1R3) can make you more or less sensitive to tasting umami.

Interesting Facts About Umami

People living in Japan started adding umami flavor to their food in the form MSG in 1909. It didn't catch on in the U.S. until the 1930s, when it began being added to processed foods, most notably Campbell's Soup products. By the mid-1930s, the U.S. was the second biggest importer of MSG from Japan—and retained the number two spot until 1941.

While Americans fell for the umami flavor, they never took to adding MSG directly to their food at home. Instead, they preferred to have food manufacturers and restaurants add it for them. This was quite different from Japan, China, and Taiwan, where people added MSG to their food at home.

References

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Raliou M, Wiencis A, Pillias A-M, et al. Nonsynonymous single nucleotide polymorphisms in human tas1r1, tas1r3, and mGluR1 and individual taste sensitivity to glutamate. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009;90(3). doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.27462p.

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