Umami - The Fifth Dimension of Taste

by Thomas M. Remo

Have you ever wondered why certain foods seem to have universal taste appeal? KFC’s original recipe chicken, McDonald’s fries, Coca Cola, Kraft’s Macaroni and Cheese, a recently picked home grown tomato, lobster in butter, even Spam? Now there’s scientific evidence to suggest why some things just taste better.

Remember in high school when you learned that there are 4 different tastes? Sweet, sour, bitter and salty? While now there seems to be a fifth taste — and that fifth taste is the reason certain foods taste so much better than others. The fifth taste is present to some degree is most foods, but not all. And it is really evident in certain foods that we have all come to love.

It's called Umami (oo-mah-mee). That’s a Japanese term meaning “savory, yummy or delicious.” The umami taste was named in honor of the Japanese scientist, Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, who discovered that glutamic acid, an amino acid, was responsible for the umami taste that makes so many foods so delicious. Glutamate and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. Glutamate accounts for the taste of umami which also tends to expand other flavors and is most detectable when tasted in tomatoes, parmesan cheese, cured ham, mushrooms and certain meats and fish.

Can You Create Umami?

Yes you can. In fact the most common glutamate used to impart the umami flavor is monosodium glutamate (MSG), already known to give a flavor boost to many Chinese dishes. Indeed while umami is a new concept in the U.S it has been well known in Asia for more than 100 years.

Only recently have U.S. scientists confirmed that there is indeed a 5th taste. In 2000, University of Miami scientists discovered that there are specific receptors on the tongue for glutamates. But a scare in the 60s about MSG contributing to headaches among diners has held the introduction of glutamate rich foods back. Actually, scientists have since shown that MSG is safe and tolerable for most American diners.

Now, with pressure on to reduce the amount of sodium in American diets, the rush is on to find glutamates that can be added to U.S. foods to improve flavor without having to label the suspect “MSG” content. Some dishes are enhanced with expensive ingredients like balsamic vinegars or savory spice.

Monosodium glutamate is used in a wide range of savory foods to create a smooth, rich and full bodied flavor. It can be added to meat, fish, poultry, vegetable and seafood dishes, and in many countries it is used as a table top seasoning. In Central Europe, for example, monosodium glutamate forms the basis for a popular salad seasoning.

Like salt, glutamate can make a variety of foods more appealing, but is not itself particularly palatable. If you dissolve monosodium glutamate in water, it does not have an appealing taste, However, when it is added to soup, it improves many aspects, including taste, mouthfeel and smoothness. In one study, a group of young Americans said that a chicken soup with a small amount of MSG was richer, more savory and meatier than the same soup without MSG.

The effect of adding the umami taste to foods has been investigated by researchers since the 1950s. The taste of meat dishes, fish and vegetables is usually improved, but cereals, milk products and desserts are not. MSG is added to prepared and processed foods such as frozen foods, spice mixes, canned and dry soups, sauces, dressings, and meat based products such as sausages and ham.

The amount of glutamate used in foods is usually within the range of 0.1% and 0.8% of the food as it is served. This is similar to levels of naturally occurring glutamate found in traditional dishes.

The taste of MSG is self limiting. This means that once the appropriate amount has been included in a recipe, adding more contributes little, if anything at all to good flavor. In fact, adding too much MSG can result in a worse taste.

Manufacturers are experimenting with umami ingredients like cheese powder, anchovy powder, fermented soybean products and mushroom powder.

Millions of dollars will soon be made by food manufacturers that strike upon the right combination to provide a satisfying umami taste to their products. No doubt, the names of those secret ingredients will be locked away in a vault somewhere as are the recipes for KFC chicken and Coca Cola.

Put Umami On Your Menu

As a chef or restaurant owner, what can you do to get some umami in your menu? Perhaps you will be the next to discover a universally beloved dish.

Here are a few tips already being employed by restaurateurs across the country.

Parmesan Cheese — one of the most glutamate rich ingredients available in the western diet. Experiment with new ways to use this readily available ingredient.

Powdered Shiitake Mushrooms — contain both glutamate and guanyfate, a nucleotide. Drying the mushrooms seems to enhance the glutamate effect. Try it powdered in salads or on seafood and meats.

Wine — the yeasts that ferment wine contribute glutamate.

Seaweed — anything from the ocean is high in glutamate. Seafood to sea plants. It was in a seaweed dish that Dr. Ikeda first discovered glutamate.

Anchovies — can be rich in glutamates and nucleotides.

Soy Sauce — the fermenting process adds glutamate.

Yeast Extracts — high in glutamates.

Ketchup — the high glutamate levels in tomatoes increase significantly through processing.

Fermentation — in fermentation, microorganisms break down protein into small particles that release glutamate. That’s why wine and soy sauce are high in glutamate.

Slow Cooking — glutamate is released when protein is broken down through slow cooking, barbecuing, and braising.
Using your imagination and a little experimentation you’ll be able to capitalize on knowing that there really is a 5th taste — the best taste of all — umami.


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