Most people are familiar with four key taste profiles to measure their response to food: Sweet, bitter, salty and sour.
But there’s actually a fifth taste profile that wasn’t made official until the mid 1990’s that presents a remarkably savory flavor which gives foods that full-bodied, meaty taste: umami.
University of Miami researchers named Umami an official fifth taste in 1996, but its history begins across the world in France when a French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin took note of a particularly rich, meaty taste (he called “osmasome”) that he left to future chemists to identify what triggers it.
Those future chemists would show up further east in Japan when Kikunae Ikenda became determined to isolate the character in his broth that was giving it the savory taste. In 1908, he had his answer: glutamate, known as the most plentiful of the amino acids that make up protein. His title for the glutamate taste? Umami, which translates simply to “delicious.”
So, why did it take almost a century for western culture to find umami?
Well, it did and it didn’t. It was put to use right away by Japanese foods in the form of MSG, a monosodium-glutamate that could turn any dish into a savory delight. It was even used by U.S. Army soldiers in World War II to make their tasteless rations more flavorful.
But it wasn’t until the 1980’s when scientists started taking a closer look at the human tongue and found a fifth taste receptor and Ikenda’s views were solidified. When the Umami Information Center was founded in 1982, they explained how umami causes a chemical reaction in the body because it “serves as a signal to the body that we have consumed protein” and “triggers the secretion of saliva and digestive juices, facilitating the smooth digestion of protein.”
Basically, when you taste foods rich in umami, it fires a signal to your brain that things are about to get delicious. This can also be triggered by aromas. Just try not to drool in public.
Umami speaks to a clear evolution of taste.
Kristin Ohlson, author of “Umami: The Secret Flavor,” attributes the journey that has drawn us to umami to a highly-evolved mechanism that’s hardwired in our brains to vet food based on taste.
In general speaking terms, humans like sweet foods but are repelled by sour tastes.
Back in the early days, sweets were a means to an end for finding substantial foods rich in calories – an instinct we often wish we could dismiss. Similarly, sour foods trigger a negative reaction in part to early humans taste buds adapting to warn them from poisonous or unripe foods. To this end, researchers believe we are drawn to umami due it its signal that protein is present. Survive and thrive.
When more food scientists and manufacturers started researching umami, they discovered how it naturally occurred in many foods rich in glutamates and other amino acids. This includes everything from chicken to tomatoes to cheese to almonds. Foods that are rich in nucleotides, like shellfish, pork or mushrooms, impart umami as well.
And the beauty of umami is that it can be added to itself to amplify the flavor.
“That’s the key to umami cooking,” says chef David Kasabian, coauthor with his wife, Anna, of The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami. “When you put the basic umami and the synergizing umami together, the effect isn’t just additive — it’s multiplied. A basic tomato sauce has lots of umami, but when you add mushrooms, it has considerably more.”
So, what’s so magical about umami now?
Arguably, the biggest umami trend is the role it plays in vegetarian diets. If you’re committed to a diet that consists mostly of green vegetables, you’re likely to embrace a solution that will enhance that flavor and provide a satisfying, full feeling.
Plus, health-conscious foodies know that the benefits of umami are incredible. Because umami signals a rich source of protein, our instincts and appetites are naturally attuned to seek it out as a healthy, tasty option.
Based on what we know about umami at this point, it not only energizes our digestion, it also stimulates our brain which helps with learning and memory while calming and balancing the brain. It also regulates our feeling of comfort and fullness so we don’t carry on eating – a crucial element to any diet.
To learn more about adding savory ingredients like umami to your food, please visit www.nikkenfoods.com.