Umami Flavour: A Complete Guide to the Fifth Taste
Every flavour you enjoy can be organized into five basic taste categories. The fifth is a relatively recent discovery. It is umami, the taste of meatiness and savoury amino acids.
In this article, we will overview everything you need to know about this powerful fifth taste, spanning from its history to its importance in new food product development.
What is umami?
There are five recognized taste groups: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami.
Umami is the taste of savoury. It is a Japanese word, which translates to “pleasant savoury taste.” You taste umami in high-protein foods that are rich in the amino acids glutamate, insinuate, or guanylate. Insinuate is mainly found in meats, guanylate in plants, and glutamate in both vegetable and animal proteins.
Umami is considered to have three distinct properties: the taste spreads across the tongue, it lasts longer than the other basic tastes, and it triggers salivation.
The taste of umami stimulates the throat, roof to the mouth, and back of the mouth, as well as creates a furry sensation on the tongue.
The History of Umami
Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda discovered umami more than 100 years ago in 1908. He was enjoying a bowl of kelp broth when he detected a new taste that was distinct from salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. Ikeda later attributed umami’s unique flavour to the presence of glutamate.
In 1985, researchers were finally able to prove that umami is an independent taste and not a combination of the other basic tastes. Then, in 2002, scientists found umami taste receptors on the human tongue. Every one of the recognized taste groups has its own unique taste receptors.
Although we didn’t have a name for this particular flavour until the 20th century, umami has always been present throughout global cuisines. In Ancient Rome, umami could be detected in fermented fish sauces. Mediaeval Byzantine and Arab civilization fermented barley to create glutamate-rich sauces. On the other hand, soy sauce is an ancient example of umami, appearing in China as early as the third century.
Humans are hardwired to seek umami flavours. After all, umami signifies protein, which is key for survival.
Umami and MSG
Umami is most commonly associated with the amino acid glutamate. Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is the commercialized version of umami. It makes it easy to add a burst of savoury flavour to cooking.
Although MSG has been a controversial product due to supposed ill health effects, the FDA recognizes it as a safe ingredient. It may cause adverse events, such as headaches and nausea, in some consumers. The FDA, however, designated that MSG must be clearly labelled on food products.
MSG is a common flavour enhancer and additive in a range of products including stock cubes, ramen, and Doritos. It’s also present across Chinese cuisine. Modern MSG is made by fermenting starch and sugarcane. Traditional MSG, on the other hand, was extracted from seaweed broth.
Umami bombs are dishes that feature multiple glutamate-rich ingredients. These dishes are tantalizing and mouth-watering because of the high levels of umami.
Salt Reduction With Umami
Umami can be used to reduce salt intake and improve the taste of low-sodium food products. MSG, in particular, is an effective way of enhancing flavour without increasing sodium levels.
Umami can be found across animal and plant-based foods. For example:
Kombu and nori have the highest glutamate content of all the seaweeds; wakame has the lowest. Consequently, kombu and nori are frequently used in Japanese broths and sauces. Seaweeds are low in calories, but full of antioxidants and other nutrients.
Foods made from soybeans also possess a rich umami flavour. Soybeans are often fermented to create soy sauce, tofu, tempeh, and miso. The fermentation process increases the glutamate content.
Kimchi is a staple of traditional Korean cuisine and consists of fermented vegetables. The fermentation process, which uses the Lactobacillus bacteria, produces high levels of glutamic acid.
When cheeses are aged, they undergo a process called proteolysis. Proteins are broken down, raising the total levels of glutamic acid. Italian parmesan is known for having the strongest umami flavour.
Fish and shellfish are commonly high in both glutamate and inosinate. The presence of both of these amino acids increases the overall umami flavour exponentially. Sardines, bonito flakes, shrimp, scallops, and anchovies are a few examples of umami-rich seafood.
Other Examples of Umami-Flavoured Foods
- Green asparagus
- Green peas
- Dry-cured hams
Umami and Food Development
Umami is a powerful, mouth-watering taste that has appeared throughout global cuisines for centuries. It’s an enticing, savoury taste that asks to be devoured. Although umami is often associated with meatiness, it’s present across both animal and plant proteins. After all, umami is a result of the amino acids glutamate, insinuate, or guanylate, which all appear in animals and vegetables.
When it comes to food development, umami is an impressive ally. It enhances the flavour of food without elevating the sodium content. Furthermore, humans are programmed to seek out umami flavours.
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