Kokumi, a Japanese word, roughly translates to “rich taste” or “delicious,” depending on who you ask.
While some consider it to be the sixth taste, this flavor enhancer serves a more important purpose. Kokumi adds craveability.
“It’s a taste sensation,” Nicole Warren told Food Dive. She's the PR and marketing supervisor for Ajinomoto, the Japanese flavor company that first isolated kokumi compounds in the 1980s. “It creates this roundness you never knew you wanted unless you tasted it.”
What is kokumi?
Kokumi is predominantly found in the realm of Japanese cuisine, where its taste sensation occurs naturally in fermented foods like alcohol, soy sauce, fish sauces and shrimp paste. The items that cause that feeling have been isolated at the protein level and concentrated into a powder compound by Ajinomoto Co. That compound can then be added to fresh and packaged foods to increase the feel of flavors in the mouth.
Despite having an identifiable effect, kokumi has a nebulous definition. As a component of taste, it is a sensation scientists have had trouble pinpointing because it is not achieved with a single molecule. It is a sensation that is activated by glutamyl peptides that occur naturally in fermented foods. It can also naturally occur in more Western fare like beer, bread and chicken soup.
“It's a taste sensation. It creates this roundness you never knew you wanted unless you tasted it.”
PR and marketing supervisor, Ajinomoto
Although associated with taste, in many ways, kokumi is more of a texture. It can boost the mouth-coating sensation from fat-containing food materials such as a dairy emulsion. It can increase the roundness of a flavor, much like salt does traditionally, and amplify sweetness in reduced-sugar products.
The rich mouthfeel that the sensation imparts comes from the heightened activation of the tongue’s calcium receptors. The result is that the brain receives an amplified signal from the taste buds, which makes mushrooms earthier, chicken richer, beef meatier and broths more complex. Kokumi, Warren explained, makes foods seem more present in the mouth and more balanced in flavor, while also making them feel more present for a longer period on your tongue.
Laura Kliman, a senior flavor scientist on Impossible Foods' product innovation team, told Food Dive there may be an evolutionary reason for this: kokumi peptides are naturally present in foods with higher sources of protein.
“The only way you can form these peptides is from the breakdown of protein,” she said.
Despite its alluring curriculum vitae, kokumi is barely emerging as a concept in the food space.
“It’s a point of interest for a lot of food manufacturers as they look toward innovation and new flavors,” Corey Chafin, a principal in A.T. Kearney's consumer industries and retail division, told Food Dive. “But it’s still very much in its infancy and very much a concept as it is a physical product offering at this point.”
Nevertheless, the concept is generating buzz. Mintel's 2018 U.S. Flavor Trends study listed kokumi as the primary “on the fringe” up-and-coming flavor. The report noted kokumi is particularly well positioned because when it comes to flavors, ingenuity will become a “matter of enhancing chemistry,” since companies are interested in "creating healthy dishes without giving up satisfying taste.”
Potentially a game changer
As pared down clean labels and ethnic cuisines continue to dominate the food space, kokumi finds itself with a wide culinary territory on which to make its mark.
“(Manufacturers) look at this in two ways right now in terms of the major applications," Chafin said. "One is the potential market that it could have within diet foods. So it has the ability to create a particular richness for low-fat foods or a salty sensation for low-sodium foods. …The other thing they see is it’s new, it has novelty to it."
Chef Anthony Todaro of RC Fine Foods, a food service company that produces its own kokumi powder from pulverized fermented soybeans and maltodextrin, said kokumi is novel because of its ability to reduce the sodium and sugar required in a dish.
“I could see it being used in a cake mix. Why not put it in there?" he asked. "You could decrease the amount of sugar.”
He recounted an experiment he performed with a beverage.
“I was putting it into Diet Coke and it really took that aspartame flavor and kind of killed that and brought out the caramelly notes, the vanilla in there and the good flavors and dampened the bad,” he explained.
He described his chocolate kokumi mousse to Food Dive, saying the powder “helps to really embolden the flavors and helps them to really stand out.” In particular, he said it brings out the fruity notes of the chocolate and creates a balanced profile that is more flavorful with less sugar. At the same time, he said kokumi adds a second layer to the mousse because “it's really great to stretch dairy notes over the flavor profile” and enhance the creaminess.
“It’s not like this is some new, synthetic class of compounds that we’ll add to foods. They exist naturally in food already. So it’s just a matter of isolating them and putting them in higher concentrations.”
Senior flavor scientist, Impossible Foods
Chafin said restaurants and food scientists are the two groups most interested in this Eastern taste sensation. One of those restaurants is Koku Café in Seattle.
Koku Café owner Kurt Schewe told Food Dive he became fascinated with kokumi for its ability to lend a “satisfying feel” to foods. However, instead of offering only traditional kokumi-rich foods like bourbon barrel-aged fish sauce and the fermented rice dressing shio koji, Schewe pushes the envelope by using foods that trigger this sensation to dishes that aren't naturally rich in kokumi. He adds miso and black garlic compound butters to buttermilk biscuits that are baked with shio koji to create a sumptuous buttery taste that lingers on the lips. He also injects amazake or sweet sake into lattes to boost the depth of the coffee's roasted chocolate undertones against the amplified creaminess of the milk for a taste of restrained drama.
Even though Schewe wants to highlight the texture and mouth sensation that kokumi imparts, he said finding the sensation where it naturally occurs seems to be a more genuine representation of kokumi than adding it as an isolated peptide powder to replace other flavors.
“I don’t really think of it as applying kokumi to a recipe. I sort of think of it as pulling out the kokumi in certain foods,” he said. Nevertheless, he admitted he was “very curious to try” some of the isolated kokumi compounds on the market to see how they influence his dishes.
Why is kokumi just now emerging?
Chafin explained that much like it took umami 94 years from its discovery in 1908 to be recognized as the fifth taste, developing demand and recognition for kokumi will take time.
Kokumi as a flavor-enhancing ingredient was isolated in the 1980s by Ajinomoto Co. Much in the same way the company isolated MSG to add umami into dishes, the company it could do the same with kokumi.
Since then, other companies have released kokumi as an ingredient. Nikken Foods, launched Komi and RC Fine Foods has Umami Sensations Kokumi Powder. Ajinomoto went the route of isolating the kokumi peptides that they identified to create this mouthfeel sensation into a tasteless powder.
Because of its powdered form and close relationship to umami through its ability to enhance flavor, Chafin said kokumi risks developing a bad reputation like MSG — though both are safe for human consumption. Ensuring acceptance of this new sensational ingredient will require consumer education, he said.
Kliman has also seen pushback against isolated kokumi. For food scientists, she said, it is frustrating that ingredients including MSG and kokumi are looked at negatively because they are generated in a lab.
“It’s not like this is some new synthetic class of compounds that we’ll add to foods. They exist naturally in food already. So it’s just a matter of isolating them and putting them in higher concentrations,” she said.
Despite extensive research and experimentation with kokumi, Impossible Foods decided not to add it to products because the company uses heme as the primary ingredient to drive meat flavor. However, Kliman said there are undoubtedly benefits to adding kokumi to foods that require amplification in mouthfeel and taste.
Warren noted that many other CPG companies add an extra dash of kokumi to their products.
“Our particular yeast extract that is formulated particularly for the kokumi sensation is in some of those plant-based patties that you would see on the market,” she said.
Snacks are another application for the ingredient, she said, since it allows for an upfront typhoon of taste to hit the tongue while maintaining a balance between all the flavors.
Lori Hamilton, senior director of business development at Nikken Foods, told Food Dive in an email that her company has also seen an uptick in demand for its kokumi product. Its popularity has grown as consumers continue to demand better flavors and cleaner labels, while also being open to trying new ingredients.
While there is bubbling interest in this Japanese taste enhancing sensation, kokumi is still far from hitting the mainstream.
“It’s my understanding that there is no mass-produced, nationally available product that has this,” said Chafin. “I think it’s something that’s going to be on the horizon for multiple years.”
Both Warren and Kliman confirmed that it is still a sensation that needs more research.
Still, when the art of kokumi is mastered, there is a good chance that it will hit the market in a big way. After all, said Kliman, “People are always looking for more delicious food.”