Archive for September 27th, 2010

The Latest Taste─Meet Umami

Can you name the senses of taste?  Sure, we know sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Even before taste buds were discovered in the 19th century, the idea of four tastes prevailed.

Auguste Escoffier, the renowned Paris chef, created meals with flavors beyond the four recognized tastes. His creations yielded a distinctive sensory experience that evolved from his liberal use of veal stock.

Meanwhile, a chemist in Japan, Kikunae Ikeda, savored a classic Japanese soup made from seaweed. He sensed a different flavor─not common to the four well-known tastes. Ikeda identified this same uniqueness in tomatoes, asparagus, cheese, and meat. He reported to the Chemical Society of Tokyo that this unusual taste came from glutamic acid, an amino acid. Ikeda called it umami, the Japanese word for yummy or delicious. That, said Ikeda, is the fifth taste.

Ikeda isolated glutamic acid crystals (glutamate) and created the seasoning monosodium glutamate (MSG) that tends to balance or enhance other flavors. In 1958 the US Food and Drug Administration(FDA) declared MSG as a generally recognized as safe (GRAS) ingredient. People intolerant to MSG may develop Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, a composite of symptom—asthma, headache, nausea, and others—after eating Chinese or other foods high in MSG. The FDA maintains that the body metabolizes natural glutamate and crystallized MSG the same.

By the end of the 20th century, scientists began to seriously consider the findings of Escoffier and Ikeda. Just as the tongue has receptors for sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, receptors exist for glutamate. Scientists named this new taste umami in honor of Ikeda.

Scientists continue to investigate possible links of this fifth taste to feelings of fullness, appetite regulation, body weight, and eating behavior. As food connoisseurs around the world enjoy the rich, delicious flavor of umami in food, future research may identify additional benefits of our fifth taste.

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