While the band Dire Straits may know that they want their MTV, most people don’t actually realize that they want their umami. For years, seasoned cooks have been pairing certain foods to create what is now described as a umami flavor, or the long ignored sibling of its better-known taste receptors — sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
“The English language doesn’t have a word for umami, that is why we use the Japanese one,” explains Gary Beauchamp, director of Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, an independent nonprofit research center focused on the senses of taste and smell. Loosely translated from Japanese, umami means “delicious taste.”
Despite its dubious past, umami is now officially recognized as the fifth basic taste. In 2000, researchers at the University of Miami School of Medicine discovered taste receptors for umami, giving it scientific credibility. Umami refers to the perceived taste of glutamate, the most common of all amino acids. It can be found in tomatoes, aged cheeses, mushrooms and other savory foods. The Japanese researcher who first isolated glutamate gave it the name “umami.”
“Monosodium glutamate is the most common example of umami, but there are other substances that have the same unique, intrinsic taste,” explains Mariano Gascon, the flavor lab director at Wixon Inc., St. Francis, Wis. “They include two 5’-ribonucleotides, disodium 5’-iosinate and disodium guanylate,” says Gascon. “These ingredients are the most commonly known umami ingredients, but this property is not exclusive to them.”
He says there are several theories that may help explain how our sensory receptors taste umami on our tongues.
“An important sensory contribution of ingredients like MSG and nucleotides is their flavor enhancing property,” says Gascon. “At the right levels, these ingredients have shown a significant increase in the intensity of the savory, brothy taste in meats.”
Research is ongoing as scientists try to unravel the mystery of umami and its taste receptors. At Monell, says Beauchamp, scientists are studying umami in three basic areas. The first is identifying receptors involved in detecting umami taste. Next, they have taken a look at how early experiences with umami affect food choices later in life. For example, human breast milk is very high in glutamates. Finally, they are trying to determine whether there are differences in sensitivity to umami, and if so, how they influence food choices.
Beauchamp explains that learning how receptor molecules work can lead to the development of less-expensive ingredients and flavor enhancers. He says the food industry is very concerned with understanding why people consume what they consume.
Beyond the science
While umami may now have official status, home cooks and chefs alike have been matching foods to maximize their savory qualities for years. Steak and mushrooms, mozzarella and tomatoes, anchovies in Caesar salad — are just some of the savory, umami combinations that people have intuitively paired, explains Chris Koetke, the dean of Kendall College’s School of Culinary Arts in Chicago. “Ancient Romans used fermented fish juice as a seasoning, and fish sauce is used commonly in traditional Southeast Asian cuisine for its umami sensation,” says Koetke.
“Glutamate-rich foods were used in every civilization,” says Debbie Carpenter, foodservice manager for the national sales and marketing departments of Kikkoman International Inc., in San Francisco. “The French used it in stocks and Italians paired cheese and tomatoes,” says Carpenter. She says umami occurs when two or more ingredients interact to enhance flavor. Interestingly though, glutamate is flavorless when it’s isolated.
The struggle to put a name to umami is not new. In the early 1800s, French nobleman and food philosopher Jean Brillat-Savarin wrote a book titled “The Physiology of Taste.” In the book, he invented the word “osmazome” to describe umami, because there was not a French word to describe it. “It is osmazome which gives all the value to good soups … makes the savory red tinge in sauces and the crisp coating on meat,” he wrote.
Koetke says that one of the reasons the struggle to describe umami continues is that most people do not discuss taste with kids. “We talk about music and art, but never taste,” says Koetke. “We don’t have them taste cake and dissect it. It’s really an important tool to develop their own senses.”
At Kendall, students are taught about umami right at the beginning of the curriculum. It takes time to learn what umami is and taste the depth of the flavor it represents. “It’s still unlikely that you’ll hear a lot of chefs ask, ‘Do you get that umami flavor?’” says Koetke. He adds that chefs may not say that a dish has an “umami pop,” but they would know instinctually that soy or miso adds a bigger, richer flavor.
Monosodium glutamate may be the most common example of umami, having been marketed since the early 1900s, but there is no one standard umami flavor. “It is very difficult to develop a standard because MSG, at low concentrations, has a salty taste,” says Koetke. “But at higher concentrations, the taste is thought to be unique, almost lingering, and is described as umami.”
Ajinomoto USA offers a product that enhances umami in processed foods. Koji-Aji, produced with a patented manufacturing method, consists of yeast extract rich in nucleotides, fermented wheat gluten and maltodextrin.
Well-prepared foods deliver a flavor experience that goes beyond the five basic tastes of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. This taste sensation is called “kokumi,” a Japanese word used to express the concept of “deliciousness,” a blend of initial flavor impact, continuity and roundness.
The kokumi seasoning benefits a wide variety of applications. Meat and poultry products acquire a fuller, longer-lasting taste, while seafood enjoys heightened cooked seafood flavor without the fishy smell during storage. Vegetables, especially tomato, exhibit the sweetness and distinct flavor of cooked vegetables, as well as improved mouthfulness.
For instance, the seasoning gives ketchup a richer tomato taste and creamier texture, and provides retorted pasta sauce with a well-balanced tomato and meat flavor and improved body.
Dry soup mixes and canned items, such as cream-based soups with cheese, have a richer mouthfeel and the flavor impact of cheese is heightened.
Despite MSG’s popularity in Japan and other Asian countries, it has a somewhat negative connotation in the West, particularly in the United States. Even though there is no scientific evidence to support it, MSG is often linked to a laundry list of maladies from migraines to asthma attacks.
For this reason, some food manufacturers look for other ways to attain that distinctive flavor. Carpenter says that techniques such as slow cooking can bring out the flavor of umami. She says that adding ingredients such as soy sauce to beef, mushrooms, cheese or even chocolate can lead to a synergistic melding of flavors.
According to Marion Dalacker, the director of marketing strategies at Wild Flavors, a flavor and functionality supplier, the trend toward healthier eating has forced food developers to look for ways to add more satisfying flavors to new products. Customers are also demanding cleaner, and more simple labeling, particularly in meats. Wild Flavors’ flavor enhancer SavorCrave is one solution to the question “How do you enhance flavors without MSG and glutamic acid?” SavorCrave mimics glutamate in both a taste and mouthfeel, and is listed on labels as a natural flavor. It has a neutral taste on its own but enhances flavor when combined with other ingredients.
Low-salt formulations, such as Wixon’s Wix-Fresh Umami, can also help create the flavor. The product enhances savory notes and increases salt perception. Wix-Fresh can also be labeled as a natural flavor or spice extractive. Umami’s synergistic effect unites protein and other flavor components, resulting in a more flavorful whole. As consumers become more familiar with and educated about umami, they’ll no doubt want it.