Umami, the savory and flavor-enhancing fifth primary taste, is a peculiarly complex food component whose functions and biological mechanisms have not been well understood, according to a new white paper from the Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute.
One of the lesser-known facts about the umami flavor is that monosodium glutamate is not its only source, writes Nancy Rawson, associate director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center and author of the 17-page white paper, "Umami: The Taste that Perplexes." Umami is naturally found in many common foods, including tomatoes, soy sauce, seaweed, cheese and mushrooms.
From a scientific perspective, Rawson attempts to explain why human bodies have developed complex machinery to sense this savory flavor in our food. She also examines the role umami might play in manufacturing plant-based meat alternatives and other products, and how it could reduce added salt and boost flavor in foods.
Umami is one of the most important tastes and sensations in food, so it's understandable the Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute — part of the Irish food ingredients giant but a separate, non-commercial entity focused on education and information — would want to explore its origins and uses.
Kerry makes an array of savory flavors and extracts to take advantage of umami's appeal, including stocks, reductions, bouillons and pastes. These products have applications for soups, sauces, meat, snacks and ready meals, the company notes on its website. One specific category it offers is "natural umami reduction," which applies fermentation to the reduction process and incorporates umami to create pastes.
Other commonly used umami ingredients can be found in many kitchen cupboards. They include sauces such as Worcestershire, soy and fish; anchovies; tomato paste; olives; miso; parmesan cheese; and kombu.
Umami is likely to have an expanding importance in the present and future. According to Kay Marshallsay, Kerry's technical business development director for savory taste, the flavor has a well-established culinary history in Asia — it was first named in 1908 by a Japanese chemist — and is now appearing in many global cuisines because of its ability to impart unique flavors and tastes.
"The potential of umami extends well beyond MSG, making the future virtually unlimited in terms of how natural umami ingredients can be applied to accent a large number of food items," she said in an institute release emailed to Food Dive.
How umami works as a food taste or flavor is complicated. Rawson writes there is a molecular receptor which responds to umami stimuli from MSG and is enhanced by 5’-ribonucleotides such as inosine monophosphate, which is a flavor enhancer commonly made from chicken or meat byproducts.
"The potential of umami extends well beyond MSG, making the future virtually unlimited in terms of how natural umami ingredients can be applied to accent a large number of food items."
Technical business development director for savory taste, Kerry
She notes MSG tastes salty because of its sodium content and glutamic acid, which humans use to synthesize protein and as a neurotransmitter, is sour. No one thing will elicit a pure umami taste, Rawson says, since it's an integrated sensation requiring all these facets — plus the "mouthfullness" or thickness quality it creates in food.
Kokumi, a related but different savory taste, features this same mouth texture, says Ajinomoto, the Japanese flavor company which first isolated its compounds in the 1980s. But kokumi is activated by glutamyl peptides naturally present in fermented foods, including alcohol, soy sauce, fish sauces and shrimp paste, and is considered more of a sensation.
Another source of umami's appeal could stem from its introduction during the earliest periods in human life — perhaps even before and just after birth. According to The Spruce Eats, amniotic fluid and breast milk contain large amounts of amino acids that transmit the umami taste, so these experiences "may prime a person to seek out this flavor profile throughout life."
Rawson mentions this factor in the white paper, noting the amount of free glutamate in human breast milk exceeds that of any free amino acid, and goes up during lactation from colostrum through three months of age. This suggests an important role for the substance in newborn health, she writes.
For older consumers whose senses of taste and smell may have decreased over time, umami could enhance appetite, Kerry's Marshallsay points out.
"The addition of ingredients like those containing umami may play a role in keeping dishes appealing to aging populations with diminished senses, which could help improve appetite and, as a result, health of tissues like bones and muscle," she said in the institute's release.
That aspect might be of special interest to makers of plant-based meat alternatives that might want to copy the Impossible Burger's partnership last year with Umami Burger as the gourmet chain's exclusive plant-based burger. Potential is even greater on the retail side, where sales of plant-based meats jumped 42% between March 2016 and March 2019, when they reached $888 million, according to Nielsen data reported by the Associated Press.
Manufacturers looking to take advantage of umami's extensive benefits might considering boosting its presence in their products by turning to naturally sourced flavor ingredients — and possibly adding yeast extracts to help lower sodium levels. These extracts help convey a umami taste while taking the place of salt, a substitution that may appeal to consumers wanting to reduce sodium levels in their diet.
The Food and Drug Administration's goal is to limit per-capita sodium consumption to 3,000 milligrams daily within two years, and 2,300 mg each day in 10 years. However, average sodium intake per day in the U.S. is about 3,400 mg, with much of that consumed in the form of processed and commercially prepared foods such as bread, pizza and soup.
The trick for food makers is to enhance the flavorful aspects of foods without actually adding more sodium, yet still keeping the taste profile people expect. Reformulating products is more costly and risks alienating consumers if the new product doesn't taste the same as the original.
Despite the challenges, many manufacturers such as Nestlé, Campbell, Unilever and PepsiCo have trimmed the amount of sodium in their products in response to consumer preferences. But Trader Joe's lists kosher salt as the No. 1 ingredient in its Mushroom and Company Multipurpose Umami Seasoning Blend, which also contains two types of dried mushrooms and a few other ingredients and spices, so salt continues to loom large.
Umami's uses might extend to reducing sugar as well as salt, according to Food Ingredients 1st. Salt of the Earth, an Israel-based producer of the all-natural Mediterranean Umami ingredient, says using it in ketchup, barbecue, dressings, pizza and pasta sauces, chutneys and sauces for ready-to-eat meals could reduce sugar levels in finished products by up to 25% and sodium by up to 45%. The company adds while such items are considered savory, they usually carry a surprisingly high sugar load — in some cases 10% to 25% of the product.
With the right balance of flavors, transparency and cleaner labels, food makers may be able to take advantage of umami's full range of qualities and foster consumer awareness and additional uses. Rawson notes in the white paper that human responses to odor and taste take place in a brain area responsible for integrating that information, and responses to umami stimuli are linked to odors, taste and sense of touch. Finding ways to incorporate these insights into foods and beverages might give brands an upper hand when it comes to attracting and retaining consumers' attention.
As further uses for umami's talents emerge, it's likely to show up in increasing numbers of product launches and restaurant offerings. But, as Rawson concludes in the white paper, its uniqueness will persist, along with its mysterious complexity.
"While scientists may not yet be able to fully explain the evolutionary or nutritional drive for umami perception or even the full molecular mechanisms underlying it, the special character it contributes to food flavor clearly plays an important role in our enjoyment of food, and food scientists will continue to search for ways to evoke this sensation in new and more impactful ways," she writes.