I've got a long-lasting problem with understanding the word "savory" and the meanings it conveys in different contexts especially when using it to describe the word "umami" meaning pleasant savory taste. For example www.healthline.com has an article "16 Healthy Foods Packed with Umami Flavor". One of the foods they list are tomatoes.

"Tomatoes are one of the best plant-based sources of umami flavor. In fact, their sweet-yet-savory flavor comes from their high glutamic acid content."

Doing my research i found 5 definitions of the word "savory" all related to flavour.

  1. Appetizing to the taste or smell: a savory stew.
  2. Piquant, pungent, or salty to the taste; not sweet.

Merriam Webster Def: : being, inducing, or marked by the rich or meaty taste sensation of umami savory flavors

So the savory can mean: 1.appetizing/tasty 2.Piquant/spicy 3.Pungent=having strong taste 4.salty 5.umami/taste of meat

So in the sentence about tomatoes from the website "sweet-yet-savory" I susspect that the word "savory" means "meaty" or "umami" is that right?

How do you guys(native speakers) distinguish between so many different meanings of that word when they all relate to the same sense(taste)?

  • 1
    So all the words in your native language only have one meaning? I’m not sure I understand why you think English speakers handle this differently from speakers of other languages.
    – ColleenV
    Nov 21, 2021 at 16:27
  • I know that words in English usually have multiple different connotations but in this case, it's five of them relating to the same concept. It seems rather confusing. Does sweet-yet-savory mean sweet-yet-salty or perhaps sweet-yet-meaty or sweet-yet-piquant? Nov 21, 2021 at 16:31
  • 2
    sweet-yet-savory could mean any or all of sweet-yet-salty, sweet-yet-meaty and sweet-yet-piquant. All it really means is not just sugary [there are other "taste elements" involved]. Nov 21, 2021 at 16:39
  • My guess is that the average American doesn't know the difference between "savory" and "tasty." Nov 21, 2021 at 16:39
  • 5
    I’m voting to close this question because "qualia" descriptors such as "savory, sweet, spicy, meaty" are highly subjective (and to a certain extent "culture-specific"), so almost anything written here would be a matter of opinion. Nov 21, 2021 at 16:48

2 Answers 2

  1. Piquant, pungent, or salty to the taste; not sweet.

Foods are often divided into 'sweet' (anything with sugar in it such as desserts and cakes) and 'savoury' (meats, cheeses, salads etc.). Though tomatoes are botanically fruits, we eat them in salads or vegetable dishes seasoned with salt and pepper, so they normally fall into the category of 'savoury foods', though there is also a sweet element in the flavour of a ripe tomato.


Quite correct, "savory" in that sentence does refer to the umami component of the Tomato's taste.

What seems to be causing your confusion is that most descriptions of "umami" refer to a "meaty" taste. This is incorrect.
All Meat has an umami taste.
But not all that tastes umami, is meat. The tomato is a perfect example of this. There are many other non-meat foods that taste umami. Mushrooms, olives, cheese (especially the old, pungent ones), roasted nuts, and many more.
Surely no one would refer to the taste of roasted almonds as "meaty", yet is is very much umami.

Why the confusion: The English word "Savory" was defined a long, long time ago.
From a time when the very concept of umami as a taste did not exist.
It literally meant "having much taste", but used subservient to the more obvious tastes of sweet, salt, bitter or sour.

Thus the modern concept of savory encompasses all that is umami, but also quite a bit of what is salty without salty being the dominant taste, pungent or spicy or sweet without any of those being the dominant taste.

It is a catch-all word for everything that is tasty, without being clearly dominated by one of the other fours tastes, but with much more overlap of "salty" and very little overlap of "sweet".
The description of the tomato as "sweet-yet-savory" is an instance of this unexpected overlap of sweet and savory, meriting the unusual description because it is unusual.

P.S. Of course, "Savory" is the purely American-English version of the English word "Savoury". And yes, they seem to apply it to a wider range of flavors than the UK does.

  • Thank you PcMan for the answer about the meaning in the tomato example. This is not where the confusion comes from. I'm not confused about the word "umami" but the word "savory" and about how do native speakers distinguish between so many different connotations of that word. Nov 21, 2021 at 23:03

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