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Umami, the 5th taste
Have you ever heard about umami? Identified several decades ago, this taste has now been added to the four basic tastes which we know as: saltiness, sweetness, bitterness and sourness. How can we best describe the umami taste? What does it contribute to and how is it useful? Here, we take a look at this fifth taste, which is still largely unknown but often found in the dishes we consume on a daily basis.
Umami’s Japanese origins
The word “umami” comes from a Japanese word which means “savoury taste”. We owe this name to Kikunae Ikeda, a researcher at Tokyo’s Imperial University who discovered this taste in 1908 when tasting a dashi broth, a Japanese broth made with Kombu seaweed, which is used to make miso soup. As he was unable to determine the exact taste of the broth, Kikuna Ikeda described this fifth taste as “umami”, giving it its name in the process. It was scientifically recognised in the 1980s.
So what is umami?
Umami describes a pleasant, mouth-filling, lingering taste. This taste stimulates salivation and activates the brain’s pleasure zones. And although it is often associated with Japanese cuisine, this taste is found in the cooking of all cultures worldwide. We find it for example in concentrated products (meat stock) or fermented products such as soya sauce, and also in mature cheeses like Parmesan… As a result, umami is often associated with salty tastes. This distinctive taste is particularly derived from an amino acid and nucleotides usually contained in proteins and RNA*: glutamic acid (which is present in cured ham, Parmesan and dried seaweed), disodium guanylate (present in dried mushrooms and meat, etc.) and disodium inosinate (present in seafood).
Foodstuffs rich in umami
Many foodstuffs provide umami taste: fruit and vegetables (tomatoes, mushrooms, garlic, etc.), cheeses (Parmesan, Roquefort), meats (particularly grilled meat, meat stocks/bouillons and cured hams) and seaweed.. The combination of these foodstuffs, especially when concentrated or fermented in the case of cold meats, dried vegetables, reduced juices, etc. intensifies the taste, allowing the richness of umami to really stand out in the dishes being prepared. The more you combine foodstuffs rich in umami, the stronger the umami taste will be.
The natural benefits of umami
The umami taste offers numerous benefits. For example, umami makes it possible to reduce salt. Just like a spice, it offers a genuine alternative to salt while at the same time retaining all the flavour of the dishes. Meals prepared for people following a reduced salt or salt-free diet, whether through obligation or by choice, can now retain all their delicious flavour. The umami taste is also very evident in the food service sector where culinary chef’s are experimenting with ways to add umami flavour to create unique and robust flavour profiles. These benefits are also seen in diets for elderly people, who gradually lose their taste and appetite: the right combination of ingredients ensures the richness of the umami taste, giving them an incentive to eat again and ensuring they derive maximum pleasure from their food. Umami helps improve the health of senior citizens.
Yeast, umami and Biospringer
Yeast extracts, which are derived from yeast, have also a powerful umami taste due to the proteins, amino acids and nucleotides they naturally contain. They offer numerous culinary advantages. Their strong “meaty broth” taste improves the flavour of recipes and makes it possible to reduce salt but also sugar and fat. Yeast extracts are used in many products available in your favourite grocery stores including soya sauce, stock cubes, prepared soups and meat substitutes, etc. They are natural and of plant origin.
* RNA = ribonucleic acid, a genetic medium making it possible to synthesize proteins.