Post Categories: May 2015

Trending Tastes: Umami—The Savory Taste that Satisfies


For hundreds of years, scientists believed humans could detect only four basic tastes: salty, sweet, sour and bitter.

The countless other flavors we can perceive were thought to be combinations of aromas and one or more of these basic tastes. In the early 20th century, however, chefs began to suspect there was yet another basic taste that was responsible for the unique savory flavors found in items such as cured meats, aged cheeses and fermented products.

It wasn’t until 2002 that a team of scientists confirmed there were, in fact, special receptors on our tongues that could detect a specific building block of proteins called glutamate. It was glutamate—not a combination of salty, sweet, sour and/or bitter—that was responsible for imparting the savory, “meaty” flavor chefs had previously described. And so a fifth taste was born: umami (pronounced “ooh-MOM-ee”), a Japanese word that roughly translates to “a pleasant savory taste.”

The confirmation of this fifth taste and the ability to pinpoint the exact source of it led to an explosion of umami interest in the culinary world. It began with chefs at high-end restaurants and a little over a decade later is beginning to find its way into grocery stores. As Chef Michael McGreal, Chair of the Culinary Arts Department at Joliet College, recently told the Institute of Food Technologists, “Umami has been a trend topic with chefs for quite a while now, but I think the general consumer ‘foodie’ will begin delving into these flavors [in 2015], too.”

A range of umami-inspired products have already begun to hit supermarket shelves: think seaweed snacks, gourmet ramen noodles, jarred kimchi (Korean pickled vegetables), wasabi-flavored potato chips and deli-prepared sushi. According to Packaged Facts, many of these products appeal to consumers because they offer bold flavors derived from natural sources instead of chemical additives. Also, using sauces and seasonings rich in umami may help consumers in their quest for increasing wellness through nutrition by cutting back on sodium and fat.

“Umami ingredients make foods taste richer and more fully rounded,” explained Debbie Carpenter, Senior Marketing Manager for umami-rich soy-sauce maker Kikkoman, in a recent interview with Food Technology. “When food manufacturers look to reduce sodium content, umami can help them retain the savory taste… [and] ‘craveability’…. [Also] lean proteins usually have reduced flavor (from less fat), so the addition of umami-rich ingredients, such as soy sauce, provides the synergies needed to compensate for what may be lacking.

Tune-Up Tip: In addition to our mouths, our sense of smell also plays an important role in the experiencing great flavors. The next time you’re sampling a hot food item, “prime” shoppers’ taste buds by remarking on how good it smells as it cooks. When sampling wine or another beverage, encourage shoppers to swirl it in their cups before drinking to unlock the full smell—and flavor.