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The development of umami research

15 June 2015

Dr. Kikunae Ikeda (University of Tokyo, Japan) examined the taste-imparting constituents of “dashi”, a popular Japanese stock made from seaweed. He succeeded in extracting the glutamic acid (a type of amino acid) and in identifying the salt of glutamic acid – glutamate – as being responsible for the umami taste of the stock.

Moreover, Dr. Ikeda suspected that the umami taste was also found in certain western foodstuffs, such as tomatoes and meat. His suspicions were confirmed when he succeeded in proving that these foods did in fact contain glutamic acid. Dr. Ikeda published these findings as early as 1909. However, western scientists assumed that umami only occurred in Japanese food culture. Further studies carried out up until the 1950s showed that the umami taste in foodstuffs was not solely attributable to glutamic acid. It nevertheless became widely accepted in scientific circles that umami was the main source of the savoury taste of high-protein foods, such as tomatoes, parmesan cheese, peas and meat.

In 1979, Shizuko Yamaguchi presented a paper entitled “The Umami Taste”, in which, for the first time, he put forward a comprehensive concept for describing the taste in sensory research and introduced umami as a scientific term at an international symposium in Hawaii. It was here that the term was officially acknowledged as a taste designation. Subsequently, umami research started to make strides not only in Japan, but in the USA and Europe as well: In the 1980s, Japanese, American and European scientists collaborated on joint research projects. They investigated the ‘new’ taste in numerous multi-disciplinary studies covering the fields of food research, dietetics, physiology and brain research. Psychological and electrophysiological studies established that umami was indeed a fifth taste distinct from the four traditional taste modalities.

The fact that it took so long for umami to be acknowledged as a taste in its own right could be due to the differing culinary cultures in Europe and Japan. The increasing exchange of cooking methods and the availability of various ingredients in both cultures is likely to result in greater conformity of taste perceptions in future.