Plant-Based Umami: The Secret to Creating Delicious, Vegan Food

By Alexandra Caspero on October 17, 2018

“Something is missing.” That’s the typical response I get from non-vegan friends and family when I ask them about vegan food. It’s good, no one is denying that, but it’s usually missing something.

I used to roll my eyes when I heard this. Can’t you just enjoy one meal without meat? It felt so simple to me and I thought that the missing ingredient was mostly in their head.

Then I started developing my own recipes and realized that they weren’t crazy or just obsessed with bacon. Something was missing when you remove the meat and cheese. That something is umami. To  create delicious vegan recipes, you have to understand plant-based umami.

What is Umami?

Umami is our 5th taste receptor, after sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Essentially, umami is the meaty flavor of food, it spreads across the tongue to coat it and lingers in the mouth longer than other flavors. It also promotes salivation, which helps you taste and enjoy food more. It’s why umami is referred to as a flavor bomb. Without it, food does feel like something is missing.

Umami is found in foods that contain a high level of glutamate, a naturally occurring amino acid. Many of these foods are animal products like meat, aged meat and cheeses. Plant-based sources include tomatoes, mushrooms, miso paste, seaweed, green tea and more. Awesome plant-based recipes understand that in order to have that unmistakable savory factor, some type of umami needs to be present.

Glutamate is the Key

When we eat any food, our taste perception begins on the tongue with it’s ability to pick up tastes of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami through specific taste receptors. This information is then sent to the brain to process and allows us to recognize the taste of the food that we eat.

Glutamate, an amino acid, is one of the predominant ingredients that triggers the umami taste receptors. (Others include the ribonucleotides inosinate and guanylate.)

Our bodies are incredibly smart and certain tastes trigger specific physiological needs. Salty foods, for example, suggest foods contain electrolytes and minerals. Bitter foods can indicate whether a food is potentially harmful. Umami flavors then suggests the presence of amino acids and proteins in goods. Once we taste umami, saliva flow increases and tells our brain that we are likely eating a protein and to increase protein enzyme production.

Plant-Based Sources of Umami

We experience umami with the umami-eliciting substances glutamate, inosinate and guanylate — or a combination of both.

In plants, glutamate is found in tomatoes, onions, kombu (a seaweed), asparagus, soy sauce, miso paste, broccoli, peas, mushrooms and beets. Glutamate is also found in monosodium glutamate- more on that below. Guanylate is found mostly in dried mushrooms and inosinate is mostly found in dried fish.

Why does this matter? Because combining the ingredients together is what makes umami flavor explode! For example, just using kombu in a broth elicits umami flavor but combining both kombu (glutamate) and dried mushrooms (guanylate) is what really makes for incredible umami flavor. It’s called umami synergy. Adding glutamate + guanylate or glutamate + inosinate creates much more umami than just one of these on it’s own.

An important note, especially for plant-based foodies. Aging and ripening increase the amount of glutamate in foods. For example, when tomatoes are fully ripened (hello ruby red tomatoes), the level of glutamate has peaked. It’s just one of the reasons a ripe tomato tastes better than an unripe one. Similarly, dried mushrooms contain more umami than fresh mushrooms.

Fermentation also increases the amount of glutamate in foods. Miso, soy sauce and beer are more plant-based sources of umami.

What about MSG?

Ah, MSG. That much-confused additive. For most of us, MSG and other ‘food additives’ are four-letter words. Items that we don’t want anywhere near our food. I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about MSG until recently. It wasn’t an ingredient that my mother ever cooked with and I regarded it as a food additive that, if given the choice, I didn’t want in my food.

When I became interested in how umami shapes plant-based food, I became curious on the science behind MSG. And what I found was shocking.

There is no chemical difference between the glutamate in MSG and glutamate naturally occurring in umami foods. That’s right! The body cannot tell the difference between glutamate in MSG and glutamate in ketchup. As mentioned above, glutamic acid is an amino acid and our bodies actually produce 50 grams of free glutamate per day.

In the US, the average person consumes about 11 grams of glutamate daily from food sources and less than 1 gram of glutamate from MSG. In other Asian countries, MSG intake averages closer to 3 grams per day. To put that in perspective, 1 gram of MSG has the same glutamate level as 1 to 1.5 ounces of parmesan cheese.

MSG is Umami

Nerd out with me for a quick moment. Glutamate, the amino acid that is widely present in foods and our bodies, is the key to umami sensation. Glutamate then exists in two forms: protein bound and free glutamate, which is not bound to proteins.

Within foods in liquid form, free glutamate binds together with ions like sodium, calcium and magnesium. MSG then is one molecule of sodium bound with one molecule of glutamate. That’s it! We’ve all been technically eating MSG, we just likely didn’t know it.

Working backwards then, to create MSG you ferment a sugar source (in Asia, it’s sugar cane and in the US it’s corn) to create a glutamic acid. A sodium ion is then added to make it crystalline and stable. When MSG is then added to liquids, the bond between the sodium and glutamate is broken to form free glutamate and sodium.

Wait, I thought MSG was bad for you.

I did too. Until I learned more about the origin story of ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome‘ and the complicated history of MSG and racism.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t be sensitive to MSG. Like sulfites in wine or tyramine in aged cheese, you can be sensitive to MSG. However, you cannot be allergic to it; it’s physically impossible to be allergic to MSG since it doesn’t cause an immune system response.

Remember that the glutamate in commercially-made MSG is the same substance that’s found in umami-rich foods like ripe tomatoes.

Layering Flavor

This is the good part. This is how you create an incredible vegan recipe that will not have anyone saying ‘something is missing’ afterwards. (PS- here’s a list of foods and their glutamate content.)

Layer the umami. Use fruits and vegetables in season as umami concentration reaches its peak with in-season produce. Add miso paste to sauces and use good soy sauce, where applicable, in place of salt.

If you’re making a soup, use a broth that was made from dried mushrooms or kombu, or from bouillon. One of my favorite brands is the vegetarian Better than Bouillon which contains yeast extract aka umami. Nutritional yeast, another source of umami, makes for a great parmesan cheese substitution.

Dried mushrooms (especially shiitakes and porcinis) have more umami than fresh ones, the same is true with tomatoes. Therefore, sun-dried tomatoes, dried mushrooms, tomato paste and ketchup are all delicious adds to recipes.

I’m sharing a recipe on Friday that I call ‘umami pasta’ because it layers umami so well. It’s got dried mushrooms, fresh mushrooms, nutritional yeast, toasted nuts and more. It’s incredibly flavorful, ‘meaty’ and full of umami.

Questions? Ask ’em and I’ll answer! xo

Meet Alex Caspero

Alex Caspero is a Registered Dietitian, New York Times Bestselling Plant-Based Chef and mom of two. She aims to cut through the nutrition noise by providing real-life, nourishing tips for body and mind. Learn more about Alex.

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    1. Susan
      October 7, 2020 AT 12:37 pm

      Alex, great article about umami. You mentioned above that you would answer questions and since I am not seeing an email address to use I hope this works. Since I made your peanut tofu Buddha bowl I now love tofu! I am very excited about that because the possibilities are endless. As a result I could eat it in some form every day! Since you are an RD I am wondering if frequent consumption of tofu is any way harmful due to phyto estrogens. I way beyond having any estrogen of my own if that is relevant. Thank you!! I appreciate your help.:)

    2. Marzanne
      July 20, 2020 AT 3:59 am

      You are a life saver. Thank you for this information! 🙂

    3. Karen
      August 30, 2019 AT 5:57 am

      Wonderful article, always interested in how to create Umami in my vegan dishes…at the end of the article you mention publishing a recipe for Umami paste. I’ve tried searching your website but can’t seem to find the recipe. Please could you point me in the right direction, big thanks x

    4. susan
      December 9, 2018 AT 4:49 am

      What a helpful post this is! I read your vegan mushroom stew recipe which led me to this and your great idea. I think I will buy some Marmite and have at it. After Christmas when not quite so busy!! Already have liquid smoke. So good in different chili recipes and other things.:)

      Thank you!!

    5. Kathleen
      October 26, 2018 AT 11:18 am

      I would highly recommend reading,
      “Excitotoxins, the Taste that Kills”, by brain surgeon, Russell Blalock, MD, for some better research into MSG.

      1. Sarb.
        December 27, 2019 AT 4:18 am

        Dr Blalock reminds me of many publicity seeking killjoys determined to get everyone worried about anything – particularly those with restricted diet looking for a solution to a problem. I have come across so many of these people whilst searching for diabetic friendly recipes. Potentially harmful I say.

      2. Alex
        November 1, 2018 AT 11:30 am

        Hi Kathleen. I’m familiar with his work, and know that he and others have claimed that the glutamate from MSG can act as an excitotoxin, leading to destruction of nerve cells. However, there are no human studies to support this.

        1. Sabrina Ariza
          December 22, 2018 AT 9:33 pm

          Lol I fricking love u

    6. Lindsay
      October 19, 2018 AT 10:29 am

      I totally agree with your article! The only thing with Better Than Bouillon is that it contains “natural flavour”. 🙁

      1. Frances
        July 7, 2020 AT 1:29 pm

        I have noticed that i crave sugar about an hour after eating a regular meal. Is eating a protein snack, such as nuts, a good way to break this habit? Versus eating a natural sweet, like fruit?