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The discovery of the fifth taste

15 June 2015

The fact that there is a further taste sensation in addition to sweet, sour, bitter and salty was discovered back in 1908 by the Japanese chemist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda. However, it was not until around 70 years later that this taste gained scientific acceptance under the term umami and became acknowledged as a distinct taste modality. 

It was long assumed that the human sense of taste was limited to detecting sweet, sour, salty and bitter tastes. It is only in recent decades that societies in the Western world have become aware of the umami taste. The term is derived from the Japanese word “umai”, which can be translated as “tasty” or “savoury”. The discovery of umami as a taste in its own right is attributed to the Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, who found the intensive taste of the Japanese cooking stock “dashi” to be quite unlike any of the taste sensations hitherto known.

Umami elicits a complex taste sensation best described as “savoury juiciness”. It is found, for example, in meat dishes, cured ham and cooking stock. Other foods which owe their popularity to this savoury taste include mushrooms, legumes, ripe tomatoes and parmesan cheese. The umami taste is primarily imparted by a type of amino acid – glutamic acid – which is a natural constituent of the cited foodstuffs, as well as meat dishes and high-protein foods in general. The salt of glutamic acid is known as glutamate, and it is this that lends the savoury juiciness and complex, full-bodied umami taste. Lengthy cooking, as in the case of goulash and stews, releases the proteins – and hence the glutamic acid – thus producing an intense umami taste. This taste can also be created by means of yeast extract. Like herbs and spices, this ingredient lends dishes an intense, savoury umami taste – in an entirely natural way – while also amplifying the flavour of other ingredients. Yeast extract benefits from the high vitamin and protein content of the natural product from which it is derived – yeast.

Today research is being conducted into the possibility of there being further taste sensations in addition to the five established modalities – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.