There are certain terms that help describe the basic senses. In the case of flavor, the basic tastes are described as sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Although the first four flavor descriptors hardly need further explanation, the fifth flavor, umami, may be more unfamiliar. Umami is a word of Japanese origin for the savory flavor that is imparted by glutamate and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which are naturally occurring in foods such as meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products.
Ajinomoto has undertaken a campaign to educate food preparers and consumers about umami, as it is often thought that umami only refers to monosodium glutamate (MSG), and furthermore, that this has a bad connotation. “In Asia, it is especially true that MSG and umami are almost deemed synonymous in people’s minds, but here in the U.S., consumers are just beginning to understand the umami concept and are hungry for information about the fifth taste. The umami flavor can be found in a wide variety of foods we eat daily, including ripe tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, cured ham, mushrooms, meat and fish,” remarks Brendan Naulty, president of Ajinomoto-USA. In fact, in stock recipes and foods from around the world, there is a combination of glutamate and inosate that may be key to creating the umami flavor. For example, Japanese cuisine often uses the combination of konbu (kelp) and bonito flakes; in Western foods, there is onion (glutamate-containing) and leg of veal (inosate-containing); and in Chinese food, there is the traditional combination of Chinese cabbage or leek (glutamate) plus chicken bones (inosate).
In order to help further education on umami, Ajinomoto created The Umami Information Center (www.umamiinfo.com). According to the site, umami was discovered by the Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, Ph.D., of Tokyo Imperial University. He knew a stock made from konbu was the important ingredient for much of Japanese cuisine. When he later succeeded in extracting glutamate from konbu, he found it was the key ingredient for the umami flavor. In the 1980s, various studies led to an international recognition of the fact that umami did constitute the fifth taste. In the Umami Information Center, chefs or consumers can find foods that have high umami flavor and learn how to cook to bring out this savory flavor in their cuisine naturally.
“It’s important to look beyond the ‘old thinking’ when it comes to MSG,” explains Naulty. “Some people continue to think that MSG is bad for them, because a long time ago, some poorly-designed studies found their way into the popular food culture. These reports are now considered urban myths, and people in-the-know—including chefs—are taking a new look at MSG. Why? They want to get in on the umami culinary trend, and MSG is a highly effective way to do just that.”
—Kerry Hughes, Contributing Editor
For more information:
Ajinomoto Food Ingredients • Chicago
Brendan Naulty • 800-456-4666
firstname.lastname@example.org • www.ajiusafood.com
R&D: The Fifth Taste -- September 2008
September 1, 2008