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The fifth taste ‘umami’ delivers a unique flavour experience

Sweet, sour, salty and bitter are the four commonly known taste sensations. “Umami” is the fifth, though it is much less known. Although this fifth sensation of taste wasn’t discovered and scientifically recognized until the early 20th century, it has been adding that mouth-watering quality to all kinds of food dishes for centuries. So who discovered umami? And what foods have the umami taste?

What is Umami?

We experience the fifth taste sensation of umami on a daily basis - in fish, meat, tomatoes, cheese and soy sauce - even though we don’t always consciously recognize it. Most people aren’t aware that what umami actually does is balance the taste and enhance the palatability of a wide variety of foods. Although umami was only scientifically recognized as the fifth taste relatively recently, it is something that we all experience as small babies because breast milk contains around 20 times more umami than cow’s milk1). Umami alone doesn’t have any particularly flavor, but it does round out the overall flavor of a dish. With the right seasoning, umami can transform any kind of cuisine from anywhere in the world into a very special flavor experience.

In the past, umami was often associated with Asian foods - probably because it was discovered in Japan and has an Asian name. Today, we know that umami isn’t an Asian phenomenon because its savory and wholesome flavor is found in many international foods such as tomatoes, parmesan cheese and mushrooms.

Umami also plays an important role in low-salt diets because foods with umami have a more intense flavor and additional salt isn’t usually necessary. Soy sauce is a great umami seasoning and a natural alternative to salt.

The fifth taste sensation was discovered in Japan by the chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. Asians tend to cook more with broth than with fat. In an experiment to investigate the composition of traditional Japanese dashi broth, Kikunae Ikeda discovered that it didn’t taste sweet, sour, salty or bitter. He named this new taste “umami”, a combination of the Japanese words “umai” and “mi”, which mean “delicious” and “taste”.

*Source: Ninomiya,K. Food Rev. Int., 14, 177-211, 1998.

Umami-rich Food all over the World

Babies come into contact with umami in breast milk during the first months of their lives. And it doesn’t end there because foods that are rich in umami are an intrinsic aspect of our diets. Umami can be found in basic foods eaten by people all over the world every day.

  • Parmesan cheese: Europeans are familiar with the umami of parmesan cheese. It’s a hard cheese that spends more than two years maturing, so it has a high content of free glutamate that is actually visible to the naked eye. The little white crystals that develop during the maturing period and give the cheese its unique flavor are glutamate.

  • Tomatoes: Would you have thought that umami is responsible for the intense flavor of tomatoes? And did you know that the tomato didn’t become a popular foodstuff until quite recently? The Europeans who conquered Central and Southern America were skeptical about the red fruit, so they brought it back as an ornamental plant. It was the Italians who discovered that the tomato was edible and they have been using it ever since to create appetizers and main dishes with the umami factor.

  • Soy sauce: In Asia, many people encounter umami in fermented seasoning sauces. Used on rice, vegetables and fish, these sauces are an indispensable part of Asian cuisine. They are so rich in umami that they balance the taste and round the flavor of all kinds of dishes. Kikkoman’s naturally brewed soy sauce also has the umami taste. In the natural brewing process, the proteins are split and natural glutamate is released, giving the soy sauce its high umami content.