Origin Stories - Umami

November 13th 2018

Origin Stories - Umami



As the rise of plant-based food continues, expect to hear the word “umami” a lot more often. It’s far from new, yet it’s only recently crept into the collective consumer consciousness.

Most of us grew up learning there are four different tastes recognized by the human tongue: salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. Apparently, our teachers left something out, however, and if you think about it, you’ll wonder how that could have happened. After all, although it was the last to be positively identified, ironically, it may be one of the first tastes mankind ever encountered.

A ‘souper’ flavour solution

Way back in 1907, a man enjoying a better-than-usual bowl of soup realized there was more to flavour than just those four tastes. His name was Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, and he taught chemistry at Tokyo Imperial University.

Dr. Ikeda noticed that adding extra kombu, a type of seaweed, to his dashi broth made it incredibly delicious. He set himself to uncovering the roots of this remarkable taste. He would go on to isolate glutamic acid as the primary source of umami flavour, and help found a company selling (and named) Ajinomoto, which we in the Western world know better as monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

He named this “new” taste umami, which, in his native Japanese, means, “pleasant savoury taste” (or “scrumptious”, depending on who you ask). That’s a pretty accurate description of the rich, sometimes meaty flavour umami foods impart.

By the way, here’s a fun fact before we move on: the very first bottle of monosodium L-glutamate Dr. Ikeda isolated from 38kg of dried kelp has been handed down from professor to professor at the university until this very day.

What foods taste umami?

Despite having been identified over a century ago, and been a part of primitive man’s meat-rich diet, it would take until recent times to satisfy the scientific world of its legitimacy. A 1985 symposium established umami as a distinct flavour, and not a byproduct of other flavour combinations. In 2000, a glutamate receptor was found in the brain, and a second was identified in 2002. Umami was legitimized at last!

Foods we recognize as tasting of umami, thanks to high concentrations of glutamate, include the following:

  • Bacon

  • Chicken soup

  • Mushrooms

  • Ketchup

  • Carrots

  • Beef jerky

  • Shellfish

  • Green tea

Think about those foods, how they taste, and how they interact with other flavours. You’ll suddenly realize that umami has always been there and you’ve been enjoying it and exploiting it all along.

Why do we crave Umami?

We have evolved to crave the things we need and avoid the things we don’t. That’s why humans love sweetness; it’s a valuable source of energy. Similarly, bitterness indicates toxicity, so we reject it. Where does umami fit in?

One theory is that umami helps us identify sources of protein, which we require to build every part of our bodies. Meat has to be cooked, however, to release the umami flavour, and this helps us avoid eating raw meat, which can be dangerous. Umami also enhances the flavours of other foods, especially other umami foods. Combining umami increases the tastiness of a dish exponentially, and that’s why a chilli cheese dog tastes so darn delicious.

Chefs and culinologists are taking advantage of the craveability of umami (and actually have been for ages without even realizing it) to create incredible new taste experiences. Why is ice cream, something we associate with sweetness, flavoured with matcha so popular? It’s that pop of umami that we just can’t resist. The same goes for smoked food; the appearance of “smoked” on menus increased by 5% between 2015 and 2017 according to Mintel data. For vegetables, fish, and even cocktails, a bit of smokiness can really ratchet up the flavour.

Umami as a plant-based flavour solution

One of the most exciting new applications for umami is in the meat-alternatives field. Vegetarianism and veganism are going mainstream, and savvy businesses are cashing in. How mainstream? Approximately 10% of Canadians identify as one or the other, and a 2017 survey found 53% of us use meatless products.

Of those who don’t partake, 42% cited flavour as the primary barrier; no one wants to eat something that doesn’t taste good, regardless of any real or perceived benefits. Using umami effectively could be the way to turn that part of the market into the plant-based food product consumers of the future.

Need an example? How about using the rich umami of mushrooms to turn jackfruit into “pulled pork”? If you’re fakin’ some bacon with tempeh, infuse it with liquid smoke or season it with smoked paprika for an authentic cured flavour.

No matter your product category, be it beverages, frozen desserts, meat alternatives, or health-forward snacks, there’s a place for umami in your flavour profile. Get in touch with us and find out how our culinary experts can put this primal powerhouse of taste to work for you.