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Umami: The Fifth Taste

September 21st, 2009

umami-foods-yummy.jpgUmami, a Japanese word for “savory”, has long been recognized by Eastern cultures as a type of taste, but it has only been in the last hundred years that the actual sources of this taste have been isolated and identified.

Umami was discovered in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese researcher who was trying to isolate the strong flavor in a broth made of seaweed. He concluded that it was a chemical named monosodium glutamate (MSG) which was responsible for that particular taste. In 1913, Mr. Shintaro Kodama discovered that the umami in bonito flakes came from a nucleotide called inosinate, and then in 1960 another researcher found that the same quality in dried mushrooms came from another nucleotide called guanylate. It is the tastes of these three compounds that are known as umami.

Modern research has shown that while it was a Japaneses scientist who is accredited with first discovering umami, foods with these flavors have also existed in Western culture. Inosinate and guanylate are the two primary components that compose umami. Guanylate is found in its natural form primarily in plants and vegetables whereas inosinate can be found mostly in meats. Foods like tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, beef, pork, seaweed, tuna, truffles, and carrots are all high in umami.

A society for the study of umami was inaugurated in 1982 and since then symposiums dedicated to it have been held in Europe, America, and Japan for the purposes of exchanging information and furthering research of this savory culinary element. As a result, the word umami has come to be internationally recognized and is enjoying common usage.

Recent marketing blitzes are making good use of the surge in recognition of umami, and companies are rushing to take advantage of this buzz word while it is still in its relative infancy. Of course, such marketing campaigns are further increasing awareness of umami both as a word and as a taste; therefore such ad strategies are bound to be short lived.

Perhaps it is due to the fairly recent explosion of interest in Japanese cuisine that has led consumers to become more aware of umami as a separate taste. The balance of nutrition and flavor which is indicative of Japanese cuisine is becoming commonplace in Europe and North America, and it is exciting to see that there still are things left to discover about food.

Jennifer Allen has now produced a total of 36 articles and 25 sales at Constant Content.

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