What Separates 'Umami' From 'Salty' Or 'Savory' Tastes?

Think back to your early school days — we're talking elementary-level science — do you remember a diagram of the human tongue with different zones for each type of flavor receptor? It showed sweet taste buds at the tip of the tongue, salty and sour on the sides, and bitter in the back. If this image sounds familiar to you, you were learning a lie. Your taste buds are not divided into different "zones" that each sense a different flavor, and according to the University of Florida Center for Smell and Taste, that familiar tongue map actually comes from a misinterpretation of a century-old graph. It's true that we have different types of taste receptors to sense different flavors, but they are all spread equally across our tongues.

Another issue with the traditional tongue map is that it only shows four flavors: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. It misses the crucial fifth flavor known as umami, which was identified just over a century ago in Japan. It's only recently become well-known to Americans, thanks in no small part to the success of Umami Burger bringing the word to more people's attention. However, while more people may be familiar with the fifth flavor's name, there's still a lot of confusion regarding just what umami tastes like. People seem particularly unsure of what separates umami from salty and savory flavors, and truthfully, the difference can be a subtle one. There is an explanation, but first, we need to rethink the word "savory."

Savory encompasses a lot of flavors

'Umami' roughly translates to "pleasant savory taste," according to MasterClass, so you might assume that umami and savory mean the same thing. They do ... sort of. The problem is that 'savory' can refer to many different flavors. Merriam-Webster offers multiple definitions for 'savory,' including "being, inducing, or marked by the rich or meaty taste sensation of umami," and "having a spicy or salty quality without sweetness." In truth, savory is not a specific kind of flavor itself, but rather an umbrella term used to refer to flavors other than sweetness. It isn't a very useful way to describe food as it's not specific enough. Salty and umami: Now those are terms with clear distinctions.

Salty might be the easiest flavor to define, or at least the most obvious. The taste of saltiness comes from salt (sodium chloride if you want to be formal about it), in contrast to flavors like sour, which comes from the presence of an acid, or sweet, which comes from sugars (via Salt of the Earth). You could argue that salt sensors are our most important taste buds because they are the only ones linked to a biological need. How Stuff Works explains that we need salt to function, and our taste for it is evolution's way of ensuring we consume enough. There's salt in almost everything we eat, often combined with other flavors, which may explain why some people have a hard time separating it from umami.

What makes umami unique

Just as saltiness is linked to a specific chemical (sodium chloride), so too is umami. Per the National Library of Medicine, the taste we call umami comes from an amino acid called glutamate. It can be isolated as a salt called monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG, which may be the most controversial seasoning ever conceived. MSG was invented in 1907 by Kikunae Ikeda, the same Japanese chemist who first identified umami. According to FiveThirtyEight, he originally synthesized it from seaweed.

In the latter half of the 20th century, MSG became infamous in the U.S. after a doctor claimed it made him sick. Numerous studies have refuted this, and the "symptoms" attributed to MSG are inconsistent, ranging from headaches to limb pain to heart palpitations and beyond. Nevertheless, America was swept by a fear of MSG, bolstered by racial biases regarding Chinese food. Of course, many typical American foods contain MSG, including tomatoes, cheese, potato chips, and cured meats (via Healthline).

Even though we can clearly define umami based on the presence of glutamate, it's still difficult to describe the flavor. The New Yorker calls it a "deep, dark, meaty intensity," which isn't a particularly clear explanation, and points to the vague terminology most people resort to when trying to describe the flavor. But then again, how would you describe sweet or bitter to someone who's unfamiliar with those words? Flavors are something you only get to know by experience.