Those who pay careful attention to their taste buds will discover in the complex flavor of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, acommon and yet absolutely singular taste which cannot be called sweet, or sour, or salty, or bitter...1
Dr. Kikunae Ikeda
Originator of the term “umami”
Finding the fifth taste
Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, a chemist at Tokyo Imperial University, knew there was something unique about the distinctive flavor found in many savory foods. In 1908, he discovered that the naturally occurring compound glutamate was responsible for adding this flavor to the popular seaweed-based broth known as dashi, and he suggested the term umami to describe its taste. Five years later, Shintaro Kodama discovered that dried bonito flakes contained another umami substance, the ribonucleotide IMP.2 In 1957, Akira Kuninaka recognized that the ribonucleotide GMP, found in shiitake mushrooms, was another source of umami.3 Eventually, umamiwas recognized as a legitimate fifthbasic taste.
The word umami comes from the Japanese word “umai,” which has two meanings:
- Delicious, nice, or palatable
- Brothy, meaty, or savory
Both meanings convey important aspects of umami taste perception.4
How do we experience umami?
When you eat a food with an umami flavor, taste buds on your tongue and the soft palate of your mouth interact with your nervous system, including your brain. Umami activates all of these levels, creating what scientists call a “taste sensation”4 and the rest of us call delicious!
Umami flavor can also be added with monosodium glutamate (MSG), the sodium salt of glutamic acid, which Dr. Ikeda isolated and patented for use as a food additive in the 1900s. Today, instead of extracting MSG from seaweed broth, it is made by fermenting starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses in a process much like those used to make yogurt, vinegar and wine.5
1. Ikeda, Kikunae. Eighth International Congress of Applied Chemistry, Washington 1912.
2. Kodama S (1913). Journal of the Chemical Society of Japan 34: 751.
3. Kuninaka A (1960). Journal of the Agricultural Chemical Society of Japan 34: 487–492.
4. Bachmanov, Alexander. “Umami: Fifth Taste? Flavor Enhancer?” Monell Chemical Senses Center.
5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration