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Umami: The discovery of the fifth taste

30 October 2018

Yeast extract is not just popular because it is a natural ingredient; it is also much-loved because it has special taste properties. This taste, which resembles meat stock, is referred to as umami. The word “umami” comes from Japanese and can be translated as “delicious” or “savoury.” It is used to refer to a savoury or meaty taste. 

The fact that there is another taste alongside sweet, sour, bitter and salty was discovered back in 1908 by the Japanese chemist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda.

Dr. Ikeda found that there was a taste in particularly popular food preparations that had not yet been identified and could not be compared with any of the tastes that had already been described. He discovered this taste by investigating the dominant flavour of dashi broth, a stock that is used in Japanese cuisine and is considered much more important than meat or vegetable stock is in European cuisine. It is only in recent decades that societies in the Western world have become aware of the umami taste.

The typical umami taste facilitates a very special, complex culinary experience. Amino acids, particularly glutamic acid, play an important role here. This amino acid exists in all protein-rich foods, as well as in many matured and ripened foods such as meat dishes, air-dried meat and pulses. Other foods that owe their popularity to this savoury taste include mushrooms, broth, Parmesan cheese and ripe tomatoes. “It is not taste peaks that make umami so special but that it has a harmonizing effect and gives depth. This means it is one of the most pleasant tastes,” says Prof. Thomas Vilgis, physicist at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research and author of numerous books on the science of cooking.

The existence of other tastes, such as a “fatty” taste, is now being researched.