Food Definitions: Umami, Locavore, Fruit, Heirloom, and Artisan

umamiWords fairly recently added to English (such as "locavore"), words originating in other languages (such as "umami"), and familiar words used in obscure ways (such as "heirloom")--all these may need defining to eliminate confusion. 


A definition may also help folks tell a fruit from a vegetable.  The problem here is that what's considered a fruit by the average person is somewhat different from the scientist's classification.   We've consulted various expert sources to find authoritative definitions and help your food vocabulary become larger and more accurate.





Our mouths recognize only 4 distinct tastes--salty, sour (acidic), sweet, and bitter, right? That's not quite complete.  Many scientists say that umami should be considered the 5th taste.   In the U.S., it's usually described as "savory," but, in 1908, a Japanese professor gave it the name "umami."  What is it? The most common compound having the flavor of umami is monosodium glutamate (MSG), the salt of an amino acid that's in all foods containing protein including meat, fish, cheese, milk, mushrooms, and many other vegetables.   The ingredients often listed on processed foods--IMP (inosine monophosphate and GMP (guanidine monophosphate) are the other two major umami flavors.  These are often referred to as nucleotides.


What does MSG taste like?  In the U.S., the flavor is often described as "savory." A Chicago Tribune article says it's the taste of cooked mushrooms or aged cheese. Wikipedia says, "By itself, umami is not palatable, but it makes a great variety of foods pleasant especially in the presence of a matching aroma."  It's synergistic with many aromas.  In other words, it's a flavor-enhancer; when combined with certain other ingredients, the taste becomes more intense than the sum of both ingredients.  The professor who came up with the name "umami" discovered this when he noticed that the broth made from a particular seaweed  had a taste that couldn't be classified as sweet, sour, salty, or bitter. 


All the taste buds on the tongue and in other parts of the mouth can detect the umami taste. From a person's infancy to old age, umami helps people enjoy eating.  Breast milk has about the same amount as Japanese broths.  For older people whose taste sensations are weakening, umami helps to make the taste of food more pleasurable.  And for those who want to cut down on salt, umami supplies taste that can partially compensate for the lower salt level.


According to Wikipedia, the word "umami" is widely recognized as the scientific term to describe the taste of glutamates and nucleotides. It is used in all major languages including English. The most commonly available source of pure MSG is the commercial product Accent. MSG has been classified as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the FDA and the European Union.  


Now you also can buy umami sauces in a bottle--Umami Dust, Umami Master Sauce, and more).  To do so, click here:





Our definition of a locavore comes from Gayle Williams, the editor of Consumer Reports on Health.  "A locavore is a person who tries to eat food grown or raised within a 100-mile radius of home." Others disagree as to the distance.  Some use 50 miles; some merely require a food to be from within the same state. Why is closer considered better? The locavore believes that:


1) food is likely to taste better if it's picked at its prime, unlike supermarket produce, which is commonly picked early because it has a long journey to the store;


2) it's likely to be more nutritious because there's less time for vitamins to vanish into the air;  


3) it's better for the environment if food doesn't travel long distances; [Editor's note: A few vitamins are easily oxidized, so foods may lose thiamin and Vitamin C over time];


4) it's better for the local economy; and


5) animals raised on local farms are more likely to be grass-fed and, says Williams,  " cattle, chickens, and pigs aren't given antibiotics or hormones in their feed. This results in leaner protein that's lower in saturated fat and higher in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids."  According to food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein (a Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board member), "this adds the additional requirement, implied but not explicitly stated, that only small farms qualify to be "local."   Dr. Tim Bowser, another member of this site's Advisory Board, expands upon this theme: "The high-population farms all confine animals in dense groups (feedlot, chicken house, hog barn).


     Dr. Bowser goes on to say this: "I am somewhat of a locavore myself. My wife and I like to shop at the farmer’s market and prefer to buy as much of our produce there as possible. We know many of the producers and trust them and the way they raise their products. We also purchase a lot of meat from local sources. Unfortunately, small slaughter houses that process local livestock are disappearing rapidly. Many small butcher shops purchase the meats they cut from the large producers."


My computer questioned the legitimacy of "locavore," but, according to Williams, the word made it into the New Oxford American Dictionary in 2007.  (So there, you finicky machine. Occasionally, I know more than you do.)   


Are you a locavore?  Are your friends?  We'd like your comments on this. Tell us why.





You may think you recognize a fruit when you see it, but that's probably not the case all the time.  It's more likely that many products you call vegetables are actually fruits.


Some might define a fruit as a sweet piece of produce that grows on a tree or a bush and can be eaten raw.  That sounds like most fruits, but it's a far cry from the definition.  We asked Dr. Tim Bowser, a member of the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board, to give us a better one. Here are his responses to our questions:


What is a fruit?  "The best definition I know for a fruit is 'the developed ovary of a seed plant.'"


Do all fruits grow on trees or bushes? "No, for example, a cucumber is a vine fruit."


Are fruits generally sweeter than vegetables?  "Yes, I think this is true.  Fruits are generally sweeter to encourage eating them, which aids in the spreading of seeds."  The sweetness comes from fructose.


Which foods usually called vegetables are actually fruits? The most common ones are cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, peppers, olives and corn. "


What about nuts?  Ask Yahoo! quotes The Straight Dope, which says, "A nut is actually a dry, one-seeded, usually oily fruit."





Yes, an "heirloom" is that piece of old, ornate jewelry you inherited from your great-aunt.  But what does the word mean in the context of food?


Heirloom (or heritage) plants or animals are endangered or rare because people rarely eat them anymore.  The website Sustainable Table says these varieties "are genetically distinct from the commercial varieties popularized by industrial agriculture."  The best way to save heritage foods is to eat them. The food industry's focus on just a few breeds of various animals and selected types of plants has tended to work against the survival of diversity.


According to the website Sustainable Table, when referring to foods, the words "heritage" and "heirloom" mean the same.  However, "heritage" is usually used to describe animals, while "heirloom" generally refers to types of plants. These terms, the website continues, "describe varieties of animals and crops that have unique genetic traits, were raised or grown many years ago, and are typically produced in a sustainable manner."  According to Dr. Regenstein, these plants and animals are usually less efficient and often more difficult to raise.


Wikipedia mentions the traditional definition of heirloom plants in a way similar to Aunt Bertha's necklace:  "...a true heirloom is a cultivar that has been nurtured, selected, and handed down from one family member to another for many generations." 


Dr. Bowser's words about heirloom foods  may spike your interest in them: "I don’t know if heirloom foods actually taste better or are healthier, but they seem that way–especially when they help bring great memories to life. Heirloom foods just might be worth the extra money when the desired effects (good memories and good eating) are achieved. Our family loves muscadine grapes (Vitis rotundifolia) fresh from the vine and products made from them. Muscadines greeted early explorers of the southeastern U.S. and have always been highly prized for their flavor and healthy antioxidant content. My wife and I remember picking wild muscadines as children."  These prized grapes are also raised commercially. 


Dr. Regenstein has a less kindly reaction to heirloom foods:  "They may taste different and look ugly. Whether they're really better remains an open question. Are they healthier? I suspect not. Are they likely to be less safe?  Yes, in general because of poorer handling by small farmers with less training. Worth the money? Certainly not to this consumer."


Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter (another Advisory Board member of this site) says that heirloom tomatoes, for example, may not have the disease-resistance that our modern hybrids do. Therefore, they may rot sooner, may not be as hardy.  Dr. Regenstein says that, in general, heritage foods are less efficient and more difficult to raise. 


One reason for keeping these products from becoming extinct is to maintain diversity in our food supply.  Dr. Regenstein feels that's best done in a seed bank. 


If you want to learn more about these foods and maybe even find out for yourself if an heirloom tomato or a heritage turkey tastes better than commercial ones, here are two sites you can consult:

This site has interesting information about heritage/heirloom foods. It explains why some breeds and plants are on the way to extinction and tells what you can do to help sustain variety.

At this site, you can buy heritage turkey (think Thanksgiving) and other ptoulry, pork, beef, lamb, tuna, anchovies, and artisanal (our next word to define) condiments and cheese. 


Google can get you to several other sites that sell heritage foods.


You can also grow your own heritage fruit or vegetables, a trend that has grown in popularity in the U.S. and Europe in the last decade, says Wikipedia





I thought I knew the meaning of "artisan" until I discovered that Wendy's (the fast food chain) was advertising an "Artisan Egg Sandwich." Can a Wendy's sandwich be artisanal? I wondered.  So I asked Dr. Bowser for his definition of the term.  Here was his response:  "In terms of food, I think of an artisan as one who is skilled with using his/her hands to make a food product in a unique and special way that differentiates it from the same item created by 'normal' sources.  The product of an artisan would inspire your taste buds to glow and your saliva to flow!  Wendy's use of 'artisan' is probably not appropriate, in my opinion, but it wouldn't be wrong based upon Webster's definition."


Bowser's comment inspired me to check my 1986 unabridged dictionary. In those ancient times, "artisan" didn't refer to food or even to artistic products.  It was listed as a noun describing "a person skilled in the arts and crafts."  Today, I see the word accompanying almost every unsliced loaf of bread I purchase to mop up my cheese fondue.  Languages grow and change.  That's why it's important to have access to a dictionary that's less than 10 years old. 



Source(s):  "Everything You Need To Know about Glutamate and Monosodium Glutamate" "Umami"


Chicago Tribune Good Eating Section "This week: Umami flavors" 

June 2012


Chicago Tribune Good Eating Section "Ketchup kicks those savory taste buds"

August 8, 2012 "Monosodium glutamate" - Production_and_chemical_properties


Consumer Reports on Health "Living la vida locavore" by Gayle Williams

July 2012


Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science


Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science "What's the difference between a fruit and a vegetable?" "the issues: heritage and heirloom foods" "Heirloom plant"



You must be logged in to post a comment or question.

Sign In or Register for free.