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„Umami taste is signalling the protein content of food“ – Prof. Dr. Kees de Graaf

07 August 2017

Why does umami play such an important role, that babies all over the world get used to it by drinking mother milk? Which function does umami have for human diet. We talked about that with Prof. Dr. Kees de Graaf, professor in Sensory Science and Eating Behavior at the Division of Human Nutrition of Wageningen University, the Netherlands.

Why do people across cultures like umami?

Umami has a very important role in nutrition. The functionality of this taste is signaling the protein content of food. This taste occurs across most diets in the world. The relative contribution of protein in the diet is relatively constant compared to the contribution of fat and carbohydrates, which are more variable. A simplified idea is that a person´s wanting of umami taste is related to the protein status of the respective body.

Can you explain why we all get used to umami from infancy while we have to “learn” other tastes?

Umami taste is present in breast milk. Therefore we get used to umami taste in infancy. This confirms its important role. However, this is also true for sweet taste, salty taste and the fat sensation. All of these preferences are hard-wired to some extent; you see them all over the world. When you talk about to “learn other tastes”, I think that this refers to the odor or texture component of the sensory perception of foods. Different cuisines have similar tastes but very different textures and odors (i.e. flavours). A Dutch child learns to appreciate the flavour of cheese, that is umami taste, fat sensation and cheese aroma. A child in India may learn to appreciate the flavour of curry; umami taste with curry aroma. 

Can we say: We get to know umami in breast milk and from then on it will be part of our entire life?

Yes , this is correct. It begins with breast milk and after this umami taste occurs in different recipes according to the local culture. This confirms the important function of umami as a signal of the protein content of food.

What is responsible for the typical umami taste and why are foods like tomatoes or parmesan natural glutamate bombs?

Umami taste is caused by monosodium glutamate and some ribonucleotide salts. It is difficult to say, why some tomatoes and parmesan cheese are rich in glutamate. Not all tomatoes are strong in umami taste; some lack any umami taste. I suppose that it relates to the biochemical composition of these products, which originates from their composition and ripening processes. Natural glutamate is formed through the enzymatic ripening process.

How do you think of the use and the role of yeast extract in the food production?

As a natural product yeast extracts may be interesting for the food production. From a sensory perspective it may contribute to a balanced and complex flavour. That may be interesting for consumers.