Umami is a distinct taste, triggering unique receptors in our mouths. But what is it exactly, and why did it take so long to identify?

Most people know that “umami” is a loan word borrowed from the Japanese. In English, tastes have historically been described as sweet, salty, bitter, or sour, and the language lacked a descriptor for “savory”. But even in Japanese, a language that dates back to the 8th century, the word is barely 100 years old. Why did it take so long for language to follow flavor?

What is umami?

Umami is the distinct flavor of savory foods, often described as “meatiness”. It is highly present in cooked meats and many cooked vegetables, and cuisines around the world have developed to enhance this flavor. 

People have been creating and enjoying umami-rich foods for most of recorded history. Fermented sauces alone have been independently created and treasured since ancient times: the ancient Romans enjoyed a fermented fish sauce called garum, medieval Arabs made a fermented barley sauce called murri, and Asian cuisine has treasured fermented fish and soy sauces since the 3rd century.  

The question wasn’t whether people enjoyed the taste of savory foods. The question was whether “savory-ness” was a distinct taste: did people enjoy these flavors simply because they were salty, or was there something else? 

In 1908, Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda proposed that there was, in fact, a distinct taste, and he called it “umami”, a Japanese compound word that translates to “pleasant savory taste”. He began his work with umami when he realized that kombu made foods more delicious, and asked himself why. By 1908, he had isolated glutamic acid, and by 1909 he had developed a technique for mass-producing monosodium glutamate from wheat and soybeans. 

When it was discovered that human taste receptors do, in fact, have unique taste receptors for umami foods, it was accepted as the fifth basic taste in 1985.  

What are glutamates? 

Glutamic acid is used in nearly all living beings to synthesize proteins. It is found in high levels in meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, kombu, and wheat gluten. 

It is theorized that the reason humans have a unique taste receptor for glutamates is because they signal the presence of proteins, which are essential to survival.  

Food science: how do glutamates affect the brain? 

Recent years have seen an explosion of research from food scientists, neurobiologists, and nutritionists on what glutamates are and how they affect our bodies. Some of the more interesting areas of inquiry include:

Flavor: It turns out that isolated glutamates are not perceived as delicious, and does not act synergistically with other flavors. For glutamates to be perceived as delicious, they must be combined with savory odor. When glutamate taste and savory odor are combined, they trigger a convergence of the taste and olfactory pathways in the orbitofrontal cortex, to a far greater degree than either stimulus alone. This reinforces the idea of glutamates as a flavor enhancer, rather than an isolated ingredient, and shows that it must be combined with a pleasing olfactory stimulus to create the sensation of pleasure and stimulate the appetite. 

Therapies: Consumption of protein and amino acids, sensed by glutamate receptors, stimulates the vagus nerve, which then activates the upper digestion. Preliminary studies suggest that glutamate-rich foods may be beneficial for the elderly and others suffering the health consequences of appetite loss. Glutamates may be therapeutic in stimulating appetite, triggering salivation, and even supporting gastrointestinal health.    

Glutamates are not only delicious, but they are powerful stimuli that trigger a wide range of physiological responses. Food scientists, flavour researchers, nutritionists, and people with jobs in the ingredients industry are all exploring the fascinating world of umami. If your appetite has been stimulated and you have experience in this exciting field, contact us. Grapefrute is an FMCG recruiter that loves the industry as much as you do, so visit our site for current job listings in food and nutrition science.