Understanding umami

With its powerful ability to balance flavours, umami can be a great addition to every food formulator?s toolbox. Katherine Sadler explains how to develop products using this important ?fifth taste?

Umami is a distinct taste sensation, scientifically recognised as our fifth taste, and often described as savoury or meaty. Umami can enhance taste, impact, body, mildness and complexity in foods.

Many foods are naturally high in the components that impart the umami taste. Understanding how to match appropriate ingredients, either those naturally high in umami or by adding monosodium glutamate or nucleotides, allows product developers to create innovative new recipes.

According to Michael Roberts, a former chef at Trumps in New York City, umami can alter flavour in four ways. First, it acts as a flavour partner, creating a synergy of glutamate and nucleotides that enhances both ingredients. Second, it can create layers of flavours, helping them peak at different times before combining. For example, a cocktail sauce with wasabi and soy sauce will first provide a tomato taste, followed by a sharpness from the wasabi and finally a hot/savoury taste boosted by the soy.

Third, umami balances flavour by contrasting the effects of different ingredients. To achieve this effect, umami-rich ingredients can be added to spices such as curry or five-spice powder with the effect of creating a more mellow, less pungent flavour.

Finally, umami is a flavour catalyst, providing the backbone of a dish and preventing the main flavours from disappearing, an approach employed by Italian chefs in bistecca alla Fiorentina, where mature meat, used for its high content of nucleotides and free glutamate, is combined with salt, pepper and olive oil to boost the flavour of the dish.

Umami enables the development of healthier flavour combinations. Eastern and Western cuisines vary enormously. In Asian recipes, umami-rich ingredients are used for their fullness, depth and delicious flavour. European and American recipes traditionally favour fat to create a full-bodied dish. Culinary experts are now using umami to fuse these cuisines, creating combinations that may initially appear unconventional, but are found to work well.

Heston Blumenthal, chef of the three Michelin star Fat Duck restaurants in Berkshire, UK, has used this approach to create umami-rich combinations including green bean and tomato salad with a soy and fish sauce dressing, and poached sea bream with konbu broth, which has a dense, meaty flavour.

The fusion of Eastern and Western ingredients is currently confined to restaurants, but it is a technique that could be employed by food developers. Umami seasoning can create products that are lower in salt but do not compromise on flavour. The average American consumes more than twice the recommended daily salt intake, while the UK Food Standards Agency is in talks with food companies and trade associations in an effort to achieve salt intake targets of 6g per day by 2010.

Boosting natural flavours
Umami was discovered in 1908 when Japanese scientist Professor Kikunae Ikeda identified that a unique taste was produced by glutamic acid. It was later discovered that two nucleotides, inosinate and guanylate, also deliver the umami taste.

The key to creating a successful umami dish lies in the ratio of nucleotides to monosodium glutamate. When combined, glutamic acid and nucleotides can produce a taste that is up to eight times the strength of the individual ingredients.

The sodium content in monosodium glutamate is one third of sodium chloride. MSG in combination with a reduced quantity of salt can lower overall sodium content of a finished dish by as much as 40 per cent. Human sensory tests have shown that this is achieved without losing the palatability of a dish, because this is boosted by the umami properties of glutamate.

According to Jacqueline Marcus, assistant professor and chairwoman of the Culinary Nutrition Program at Kendall College in Chicago, the flavour attributes of foods and umami-rich ingredients can be combined to maximize product flavour. Understanding how the ingredients impact the overall balance of flavours is essential.

Soy sauce, for example, contains 300 different compounds, one of which is glutamic acid, which can add a meaty taste to dishes. Soy works well to balance acidic taste and enhances the sweetness in bitter foods. Salt does not have an umami taste; however, when combined with umami, the perception of salt increases.

Preserved foods such as capers, olives and gherkins can also be added to foods to create an increased salty taste. Other ingredients such as bacon, chorizo and fish sauce can be used to create a similar effect, but they also add a bitter note. Foods rich in free glutamate can be combined with ingredients to alter the taste of a dish. Tomatoes can be enhanced with vodka, which releases the rich taste of the tomatoes; and bacon can be added to vegetables such as cabbage to counteract bitterness.

Pairing foods with different drinks can also impact taste; chocolate contains no umami, but when eaten with sake it appears to have a richer, fuller flavour with the amino acids contained in the sake bringing out the taste. Understanding how tastes combine and the impact of ingredient combinations can add new dimensions when developing new products.

Consumer demand
Product developers can also use knowledge of umami to influence consumer demand. People may not be aware of it, but research has shown that they find products more pleasurable when flavour enhancement is used to improve palatability. Edmund Rolls, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, has shown that not only do areas of the brain recognise umami distinctly, just like our other tastes, but that there are parts of the brain, for example the orbitofrontal cortex, where taste and smell inputs combine to produce sensations such as pleasantness.

Rolls believes that the umami taste, in combination with savoury odours, activates the area of the brain where pleasure is represented. According to this research, developing products using appropriate ingredients to stimulate the sense of pleasure can influence food selection.

Further research suggests the reasons why people are drawn to products with an enhanced umami taste. Glutamate is found in abundance in mothers? milk, at levels about 10 times that found in cows? milk. It is likely, therefore, that a breast-fed, newborn infant consumes more free glutamate (per kg/body weight) in his first weeks and months than during any other period of life. Researchers argue that children who are breast-fed and exposed to the umami taste are more inclined to like it later in life.

There is related evidence to support this hypothesis. This includes work carried out in 2004 by Gary Beauchamp and his team at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in the US. Results showed that infants fed a particularly bitter and sour formula before 4 months of age found the formula palatable while those fed the formula for the first time after 7 months of age reacted with disgust.

The flavours of foods are said to have an important biological function, acting as a clue to their nutritients. Sour tastes may be a warning that food is off and bitterness a sign of poison. Umami taste is a sign of the presence of protein.

The growing understanding of umami provides a key to exciting new food combinations. In the future, as this knowledge expands, it is possible that the umami taste will be used to improve dietary habits.

With its flavour-enhancing properties, umami has the potential to make dishes that are nutritionally beneficial more desirable and as a result drive product selection toward healthier foods.

Katherine Sadler works for Fallon Currie PR agency. Respond: [email protected] All correspondence will be forwarded to the author.

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