inewtrition – Food Product Development Company

Umami revolution: the “5th taste” shaping food innovation

by Dr. Raphaëlle O'Connor

by Dr. Raphaëlle O'Connor

Raphaelle has over 25 years’ experience in the ideation,
development, and commercialisation of food chemistry,
food science, food technology, and nutrition.

Umami_Innovation

Umami transcends mere sweetness, saltiness, sourness, and bitterness. It’s that elusive, indescribable depth that lingers with a seared steak, the creaminess of an aged cheddar, or the comforting tomato soup. For centuries, cooks and chefs have intuitively harnessed this ‘5th taste’ through slow cooking, fermentation, and culinary traditions. But now, science is unravelling the secrets of umami, and its potential to shape the future of food and drink.

 

What is umami?

Umami was first identified in 1908 by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemist who was seeking to understand the taste of dashi, a Japanese soup broth made with kombu (kelp) and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes). The word “umami” was subsequently coined meaning “pleasant savoury taste”.

Umami is caused by two main types of compounds: glutamates and nucleotides. Glutamates are commonly found in foods like meat, cheese, and tomatoes, while nucleotides are found in foods like mushrooms, seafood, and seaweed. When these compounds bind to receptors on your taste buds, they send a signal to your brain that you’re tasting umami.

Close up of Shimeji mushrooms

Our craving for umami is a result of both our evolutionary needs and our inherent enjoyment of its unique taste qualities. It’s a testament to the incredible wisdom of our bodies, guiding us towards foods that are not only delicious but also essential for our health and well-being. In fact, we crave umami for a few fascinating reasons, both evolutionary and taste-related:

  1. Nutrient indicator: Umami signals the presence of protein and other essential nutrients in food. In our hunter-gatherer past, finding sources of protein was crucial for survival and reproduction. So, developing a preference for umami helped our ancestors seek out and consume these vital nutrients.
  2. Digestive aid: Glutamate, a key component of umami, stimulates saliva production and digestive enzymes. This helps break down food more efficiently and absorb nutrients better. Craving umami could be our body’s way of ensuring proper digestion and nutrient utilisation.
  3. Taste appeal: Umami adds a savoury, brothy, and meaty richness to food, making it more flavourful and satisfying. It complements other tastes like sweet, sour, and salty, creating a well-rounded and enjoyable taste experience.
  4. Satiety and comfort: Umami foods tend to be more filling and leave us feeling pleasantly satiated. This could be due to the presence of protein and other nutrients, or the umami taste itself triggering feelings of comfort and well-being.

Umami extraction

There are several methods of umami extraction. Here are a few key techniques commonly used:

1 | Enzymatic Hydrolysis

Enzymes like protease and peptidase break down proteins in ingredients like meat, fish, or soybeans into smaller molecules, including free glutamates, the main umami contributor.

2 | Fermentation

Microorganisms like bacteria and fungi transform sugars and starches into glutamate and other umami compounds like nucleotides. Examples include soy sauce, miso, and cheese, where fermentation unlocks rich savoury flavours.

3 | Maillard Reaction

Heating sugars and amino acids together triggers a complex series of chemical reactions, generating flavourful compounds like melanoidins. This browning reaction adds umami depth to roasted meats, grilled vegetables, and broths.

4 | Chemical Extraction

Glutamic acid can be extracted from natural sources like wheat gluten or corn steep liquor using solvents or acid hydrolysis. This purified form, monosodium glutamate (MSG), is a common umami enhancer in processed foods.

5 | Membrane Separation

Selective membranes filter glutamate and other umami compounds from liquid streams, concentrating them for use in food formulations or further purification.

Beyond these individual techniques, researchers are also exploring promising advancements:

  • Combining methods: For instance, enzymatic hydrolysis followed by membrane separation can maximise umami extraction while minimising waste. A 2019 review study dove into various methods but noted that while each technique has its merits, the efficiency and economic benefit of combining methods has optimal output, and emphasised the importance of considering environmental impact, cost-effectiveness, and production convenience when developing processing strategies.
  • Utilising novel sources: Extracting umami from unconventional sources like sunflower seeds or seaweed offers sustainable and potentially healthier options.
  • Precise umami characterisation: Identifying and isolating specific umami compounds allows for targeted flavour modification and personalised taste experiences.

Effective extraction and isolation of key umami components pave the way for exciting possibilities – think personalised nutrition and sustainability, all without compromising on taste.

Elevate your brand, delight your customers, and optimise well-being with inewtrition’s 48-page report and consultation package. 

The health revolution

The umami boom isn’t simply a passing fad. It reflects a deeper shift in consumer preferences. Today, we crave meaningful food experiences that go beyond mere sustenance. We seek the comfort of familiar flavours, the excitement of culinary exploration, and the satisfaction of knowing our choices nourish both our bodies and the planet. It’s no wonder that umami, with its power to nutritionally elevate flavour complexity, has become a revolution in itself.

The search for healthier, sustainable food solutions often clashes with taste satisfaction, however, a 2023 study sheds light on a promising avenue: leveraging the power of umami compounds to reduce salt intake without compromising flavour. Using data from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey, the authors estimated that substituting salt with umami could reduce salt intake by 9% to 19%. This reduction could be a valuable strategy for mitigating the risks of chronic diseases associated with excess salt consumption, such as heart and kidney diseases.

Several other studies, including a Science Direct article, found evidence that umami compounds could also modulate sweet tastes. Researchers used human receptor cells to evaluate how umami compounds like MSG and glutamyl peptides can reduce the response of these cells to sucrose. The interaction between sweet and umami receptors is complex and not limited to simple binding but can influence taste perception in nuanced ways. This understanding can be applied to manipulate tastes and potentially reduce dependence on sugar and high-intensity sweeteners.

 

Other potential benefits of umami for food & beverage innovation:

  • By incorporating umami-rich ingredients like glutamate into plant-based alternatives, such as jackfruit “pulled pork,” we can create delicious, sustainable options that resonate with consumers.
  • Sustainable, plant-based ingredients bursting with natural umami, offering guilt-free indulgence and reduced environmental impact – e.g jackfruit “pulled pork”
  • Precisely customised flavour profiles, catering to individual dietary needs and preferences with accuracy – e.g. low-sodium ready meals
  • Enhanced convenience without compromising on taste, enabling busy individuals to prepare healthy, flavourful meals at home – e.g umami-infused broths or quick-cooking grains packed with savoury goodness.

 

At inewtrition, we’re driven by this vision. We believe that by partnering with fellow food innovators we can design a future where taste meets nutritional excellence, sustainability dances with convenience, and every bite tells a story of shared value and conscious living.

Join us on this journey of discovery that nourishes body, soul, and planet.

REFERENCES

  • Xiaolan Bao, Sarina Ma, Yanan Fu, Jiale Wu & Meili Zhang (2020) Sensory and structural characterization of umami peptides derived from sunflower seed, CyTA – Journal of Food, 18:1, 485-492, DOI: 10.1080/19476337.2020.1778794 
  • Nakamura H, Kawashima T, Yamasaki L, Lwin KS, Eguchi A, Hayabuchi H, Tanoe Y, Tanaka S, Yoneoka D, Ghaznavi C, Uneyama H, Shibuya K, Nomura S. Reducing salt intake with umami: A secondary analysis of data in the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey. Food Sci Nutr. 2022 Nov 12;11(2):872-882. doi: 10.1002/fsn3.3121. PMID: 36789077; PMCID: PMC9922145. 
  • Shim J, Son HJ, Kim Y, Kim KH, Kim JT, Moon H, Kim MJ, Misaka T, Rhyu MR. Modulation of sweet taste by umami compounds via sweet taste receptor subunit hT1R2. PLoS One. 2015 Apr 8;10(4):e0124030. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0124030. PMID: 25853419; PMCID: PMC4390298.

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