Seaweed has been salty and strawberries sweet, but how do you describe chicken soup? Or Parmesan cheese? For years, this identifiable-yet-inexplicable flavor profile was excluded from the four accepted taste categories: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. Until 1908, that is, when a Japanese scientist rocked the food world with an idea conjured up over a cup of soup.
Looking to target the exact flavor of that aforementioned seaweed soup, chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered through a series of tests a crystalline compound that contained the same flavor of the savory dish—a fifth taste he deemed umami. After determining the crystals’ exact molecular formula, Ikeda then realized that the formula was identical to glutamic acid, which almost always exists as a glutamate when found in the human body.
Certain foods contain naturally high levels of this amino acid: Pork has 337 mg of natural glutamate per 100 g; tomatoes 246 mg/100 g. Ikeda, through the process of fermenting vegetable proteins, was able to bottle this magic as an additive in 1909, deeming it Ajinomoto. The sole ingredient of this umami seasoning? Monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
The MSG myth
Fueled by growing public consciousness about this additive, MSG began garnering bad press in the late 1960s when it became associated with a range of health maladies, ranging from mild (headaches and sweating) to the extreme (hyper-activity and aggressiveness). Following this hype, the acronym began to be largely associated with “NO,” as restaurants and distributors added the prefix to pacify growing concern about the presumably harmful ingredient.
But “presumably” is the key word here. “Real research connecting normal, and even larger-than-normal, doses [of MSG] to adverse effects has yet to surface,” reports Business Insider. The Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have all deemed MSG a safe food ingredient. The Mayo Clinic website does recognize that some may experience "MSG symptom complex" from the additive, but adds that it is only “a small percentage of people” and that “symptoms are usually mild and don’t require treatment.”
It's umami, sans MSG
Despite the general scientific agreement that MSG has no harmful side effects for most of the general population, the stigma stuck, and continues to remain. Citing its artificial quality, Whole Foods calls the additive an “unacceptable” ingredient for any of its products, and the USDA requires labeling when MSG is added as a direct ingredient.
To sidestep the negativity attached to monosodium glutamate, the food industry has gone back to its roots, harnessing ingredients with high levels of glutamic acids to bring about a natural umami taste. Ingredients include anchovy powder, Parmesan cheese, soy sauce, seaweed, tomato powder, and fish paste. According to IFT and the Wall Street Journal, manufacturers like Campbell’s and Frito-Lay are using these ingredients in low sodium and reduced-fat products to add depth to these typically-categorized bland foods.
Food consultant and cookbook author Laura Santtini has gone as far as bottling the taste for her Taste No. 5 Umami Paste, an all-natural blend of umami-heavy ingredients including tomatoes, Parmigiano Reggiano, and anchovies.
Producers have also joined in the umami game. In 2007, industry group the Mushroom Council published a white paper playfully named “Umami: If You Got It, Flaunt It.” Celebrating the natural umami flavor of mushrooms, the guide contains a recipe for Coq au Vin Nouveau—a “very umami classic.”
While there is no research yet on the market value of high-umami food products, the taste’s trendiness in the restaurant industry is encouraging. Forbes named it one of the 12 hottest food trends for 2014, and multiple chefs are churning out umami “bombs” in their restaurants.
Popular Californian burger chain Umami Burger has literally bottled its signature item's success with a line of umami sauces, dust, and even a spray, available for sale on its website. When the company opened its first New York outpost last year, the wait for one of its famous Classic Umami burgers exceeded three hours the day after opening.
While MSG still maintains an aura of suspicion, the food industry continues to produce various products containing the coveted umami taste. The use of all-natural ingredients to accomplish this task fits in nicely with another industry trend: the rising preference for organic, additive-free foods.