The Science of Umami: The 5th Taste
Most of us are familiar with the four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. But there’s a fifth taste that is often overlooked – umami.
Umami is a Japanese word that literally means “pleasant savoury taste.” And it’s a taste that more and more people are starting to appreciate. So what exactly is umami? And how can you use it to enhance the flavour of your food?
Read on to find out everything you need to know about the science of umami.
What Is Umami?
Umami was first described in 1908 by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda, who found that glutamate – a naturally occurring amino acid – was responsible for the flavour of certain foods, including meat and mushrooms. Since then, many other foods have been found to contain significant amounts of glutamate as well, such as tomatoes, seaweed, and certain cheese.
At its most basic level, umami is the savoury taste that we experience when eating certain types of food. Used in everything from salad dressings to stir-fries and soup, today, umami is widely recognised as being one of the basic tastes, and it is often used to enhance the other four flavours.
How do we taste Umami?
Our taste receptors that respond to glutamate and nucleotides are primarily responsible for detecting umami, and it is believed that the actual receptors for this particular taste are found in our taste buds, rather than on our tongues.
There are many factors that contribute to this unique taste sensation. These include:
The presence of certain amino acids like glutamate and aspartate
The presence of certain nucleotides like inosinate and guanylate
In addition to the basic taste receptors that we have on our tongues, umami is also associated with a range of other senses.
Aroma – The aroma of a food can also play a role. Food that is high in umami often has a distinct, savoury smell that can be detected even before they are eaten.
Texture – The texture of a food can also influence our experience of umami. For example, certain meats can have a “meaty” texture that is associated with umami.
Temperature – The temperature of food can also affect how we perceive umami. In general, food that is high in umami is best enjoyed at warmer temperatures, as this allows the flavours to be released more fully.
All of these factors work together to create a distinct umami taste. When we eat food that contains these substances, our taste receptors are stimulated and we experience a pleasant, savoury flavour.
The Importance of Glutamate
Glutamate or glutamic acid is the key ingredient responsible for the umami taste. In fact, glutamate is actually produced by our bodies naturally, and it plays an important role in many biochemical processes.
Glutamate is found in high concentrations in particular foods, including certain types of fish and shellfish, dairy products, mushrooms, tomatoes, and fermented products like soy sauce.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
MSG has been used for centuries in Asian cuisine to enhance the flavour of food. MSG is a common ingredient in many processed foods, and it is often used as a flavour enhancer. However, some people believe that MSG is responsible for a range of negative health effects, including headaches and nausea. There is no scientific evidence to support these claims, and MSG is considered safe for most people. In fact, the World Health Organization has classified MSG as a “generally recognized as safe” food additive.
How Can We Use Umami?
At this point, you may be wondering how you can use the science of umami to enhance your cooking. There are many different ways that you can do this, and the best way to find out is to experiment and see what works best for you.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Use glutamate-rich ingredients like parmesan cheese
Tomatoes and Parmesan are two examples of foods that are naturally high in glutamate. You can use them to add flavour to your dishes without having to add any additional seasonings.
Use umami-enhancing techniques like slow cooking and fermentation.
Different cooking methods can also affect the flavour and level of umami in your food. For example, roasting or grilling foods will often result in increased levels of glutamate, while boiling or steaming may reduce them.
Add umami boosters like MSG or yeast extract.
If you want to really boost the umami flavour of your food, you can add certain additives that are rich in glutamate. These include monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is a common ingredient in many processed foods, and yeast, which is a common ingredient in savoury dishes like soups and stews.
Use nucleotide-rich ingredients like dried mushrooms, mushroom powder and seaweed.
Nucleotides are another type of compound that can contribute to the umami taste. They are found in foods like mushrooms, seaweed, and fermented foods. Adding dried mushrooms or mushroom powder to your dishes can be a great way to enhance the flavour.
Use umami seasonings like soy sauce, fish sauce, and miso paste.
Soy sauce, fish sauce, and miso paste are all examples of umami seasoning that you can use to add a savoury flavour to your dishes. They can be added to recipes for marinades, soups, stews, or other dishes for an extra umami kick.
What ingredients have an umami flavour?
You can find umami in many different foods, but some of the most common umami-rich key ingredients include:
Health Benefits of Umami
In addition to enhancing the flavour of food, umami also has a number of potential benefits. One of the most interesting benefits is that umami foods can help to increase nutrient absorption in patients and the elderly.
As umami is also commonly used as a replacement for salt, it can also help to reduce sodium intake. This is especially beneficial for people who are on a low-sodium diet or who have high blood pressure.
Umami can also help to increase satiety, which means that it can help you feel fuller for longer after eating. This makes it an excellent tool for weight loss or weight management.
As you can see, the science of umami is very complex. But by learning about its different components and how they work together, you can easily improve the flavour of your food.
The science of umami is a relatively new field, and there is still much to learn. However, we do know that glutamate plays a key role in the perception of umami and that it is found in many different foods including dried mushrooms. If you're looking to add more umami to your products, our team can help. Get in touch today to learn more about our custom food manufacturing solutions.