Umami,Do you consider it when developing a dish?

Joined Jul 31, 2000
So, "The fifth taste" is becoming more and more main stream as well as being widely debated is if fact it should be the "Fifth Taste"

I wanted to copy a Wine Spectator article I just read but no luck, so I searched the web to find something to read. Kikunae Ikeda isolate Umami in 1907 (he aslo developed MSG)Jonayjan Pratt has dedicated a restaurant (Umami Cafe) in Croton on the hudson and Tim Hanni (who I studied with) is a big backer.

What are your thoughts?

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Isolating the fifth element of taste
Discovery of the mechanism behind the mysterious fifth taste, umami, is changing our perception of perception itself.
By Thomas Maeder
February 9, 2001

Everyone knows that there are four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Wrong. A fifth taste -- umami -- was admitted last year to the gustatory pantheon, and a growing awareness of its role in the flavor and pleasurable sensations of food is changing the way food processors, nutritionists, and chefs think about what they do. The artful use of umami can make mediocre fare taste better, and good food taste great.

In 1907, the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda sat before a bowl of tofu in dashi, a kelp-based broth, and pondered dashi's peculiar flavor and its puzzling ability, like salt, to enhance or harmonize the flavor of other foods. Curiosity drove Mr. Ikeda to the laboratory bench, where he found that the substance responsible for umami, as he named it, was glutamic acid, one of the 20 common amino acids of which proteins are built.


"An attentive taster," Mr. Ikeda told an American audience at the 8th International Congress of Applied Chemistry in 1912, "will find something common in the complicated taste of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese, and meat, which is quite peculiar and cannot be classed under any of the [other known tastes]." It is often faint, he said, usually overshadowed by other, stronger tastes, and may easily pass unnoticed. "Had we nothing sweeter than carrots or milk, our idea of the quality 'sweet' would be just as indistinct as it is ... with the peculiar quality."

Glutamate that is bound within proteins does not produce an umami taste, only the free form, which is liberated when proteins break down during processes like aging, fermentation, ripening, or cooking. Glutamic acid, however, tastes sour as well as umami, so Mr. Ikeda experimented with other glutamate compounds, finally settling on its sodium salt: monosodium glutamate, or MSG. He approached S. Suzuki & Company, one of Japan's largest pharmaceutical companies at the time, with a proposal to market his compound as a flavor enhancer. In 1909, the company began selling what it called Aji-no-moto, a product so successful that the company subsequently renamed itself Ajinomoto. In 1917, it came to the United States under the brand name Super Seasoning.

Why should the umami taste exist? One theory holds that tastes guide us toward healthy food choices -- bitter and sour help us avoid dangerous substances, like toxic alkaloids, while sweet and salt attract us to sources of needed energy, sodium, and chloride. Because glutamic acid is the most abundant amino acid in animal protein, umami perception could be a meat-protein-seeking mechanism. This theory is hard to prove, but it is suggestive that carnivores and omnivores, like rodents, respond positively to umami, while herbivores are indifferent or even repelled.

The umami story was complicated by the discovery that another class of molecules, 5'-ribonucleotides, also produces umami taste. These compounds, commercially available in the form of disodium 5'-inosinate (IMP) and disodium 5'-guanylate (GMP) are effective at far lower concentrations than glutamate. More significantly, they have such a strong synergistic interaction with glutamate that very small quantities of IMP or GMP added to MSG or to foods that naturally contain free glutamate yield an intense umami taste.


For many years, taste physiologists debated whether umami was a genuine fifth distinct taste or merely a combination of others, perhaps sweet and salt. "But if you block salt taste and take pure MSG," says Gary Beauchamp, director and president of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, which has done extensive research on umami, "you get an incredible umami taste. Block sweet and salt and give umami, and you taste umami. It's clearly something different."

The clearest proof that something is a basic taste would be the discovery of a receptor that responds specifically to the stimulus. The receptors for sour and saltiness are well understood. Controversy lingers about bitter, and there appear to be multiple sweetness mechanisms.

Early last year, Nirupa Chaudhari and Stephen Roper at the University of Miami cloned a specific glutamate receptor from rat tongue, which is generally accepted as the definitive proof of umami's basic taste status. It does not, however, respond to the 5'-ribonucleotides, meaning that other receptors and complex interconnections are at play.

Moreover, a receptor is not the whole story. The flavor-enhancing effect of umami is one feature that makes it difficult to define. MSG alone is not pleasant, though it brings out deliciousness in foods. This is not unique to MSG: salt, as well as being salty, is also a flavor enhancer. Cocoa has a bitter edge that adding more sugar will not correct, but a pinch of salt brings up the sweetness and dampens the bitterness, a useful but poorly understood phenomenon that takes place at the neural level.

The discovery of a receptor does, nonetheless, have significant practical implications. "Our work would probably make it easier for companies to screen thousands of compounds. You can't throw thousands of compounds at a human tongue, whereas you can at a molecule," says Dr. Chaudhari. "You can set up automated, nonsubjective screening methods. You could do this for bitter as well -- not only how do you produce bitter, but how do you mask it, which would be useful in medicines as well as in foods."

Mr. Beauchamp of Monell refers to such mechanized taste-testing -- called high-throughput screening, in the biotech business -- as "the Holy Grail of the food flavor industry." Umami, he adds, is a particularly interesting target. "There's no question that industry is interested in finding the parallel to a sugar substitute. They'd like to find something that gives the umami taste without being MSG." MSG has a bad reputation because of its alleged association with Chinese restaurant syndrome (see "Clean Bill of Health").


In December 2000, a new biotech company called Senomyx, located in La Jolla, California, signed a research collaboration agreement with Kraft Foods to explore new flavorings. Using a variation on the combinatorial chemistry and high-throughput assay techniques now employed to screen new drug candidates, Senomyx will test huge numbers of compounds against taste and smell receptor molecules, conspicuous among them the umami glutamate receptor.

"You can't just sit down with a 96- or 384-well microtiter plate and taste or smell things one after another," says Paul Grayson, the Senomyx CEO. "After about the fifth one, you can't remember the first one. With this sort of automated screening we can optimize other characteristics as well, such as volatility for olfactory compounds, or looking at systemic absorption of flavorings."

Automated assays can also be used in a reciprocal way, as a more efficient way of isolating new receptors. By testing all the expressed proteins in taste tissue and teasing out those that show activity when exposed, for example, to MSG, IMP, or GMP, researchers may discern more components of the taste pathways.

Oddly, until recently, awareness of umami was greater among scientists than in the kitchen. Tim Hanni, a wine master and founder of WineQuest, a company dedicated to the enjoyment of wine, finds that knowledge of the balance and interactions between the five tastes helped him to escape traditional notions of what wines go with which foods, as well as to understand and better control food combinations themselves. One of the most important objectives in making good food is to maximize umami. "How do you explain umami to someone who doesn't know what it is?" he says. "Sometimes it's easier to show what it isn't. Tofu is not umami. So you put it in soy sauce. Rice is very low in umami, but if you cook it in stock where you transfer the soluble compounds from chicken you've got a more delicious and nutritious product. The umami taste of potatoes increases 11-fold when they're cooked, but that's still not enough, so you add sour cream, bacon, cheese."

In addition to making foods taste better, umami can be used to encourage healthy eating. The elderly progressively lose their sense of taste and smell and therefore often stop eating well. Many diseases and drugs alter these senses as well. Susan Schiffman, of the department of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, uses various flavors and MSG -- or IMP and GMP when low sodium is desired -- to improve the diets of old people and patients. By selectively flavoring nutritious foods like vegetables, Ms. Schiffman says, you can alter the mix of foods that people choose to eat. If you want to give an older person food with a meatier taste, she adds, "you dump in some IMP or GMP, and then they say, 'Now that you're here, they're serving better soup.'"


The home page of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, with information on taste, smell, and current research at the center.

Randy's World article on umami taste and its relationship to wine.


Copyright 2003 RHC Media, Inc.
Joined Aug 11, 2000
I was at Fio's (one of St. Louis's top restaurants before he sold)
at a tasting dinner....I've rarely spit anything out in my life but it was so offensive. Needless to say I don't use MSG and avoid it whenever possible, when I do end up with some my fingers swell.
Millard did research on it after that date and it did not convince me to try it further. YUCK
Joined Jan 5, 2001
The short answer is no.

It's difficult to enhance umami without the addition of MSG, and the best we can do with foods with naturally ocurring glutamates is to let them speak for themselves (oysters and the like).

Can anyone really offer an alternative to MSG? Seems to me that with the skillful balancing of salty sweet bitter and sour, one can reach the heights of gustative pleasure without having to resort to the fifth je-ne-sais-quoi.

It looks like every town has a new restaurant called Umami. I wonder how many of them truly master the definition and applications of their namesake.
Joined Oct 28, 1999
For more background on Umami and interesting insight, check out Jeffrey Steingarten's
It Must've Been Something I Ate: The Return of the Man Who Ate Everything ... informatively droll and awkwardly humorous.
Joined May 1, 2001
I've sampled food from Pratt's Umami Cafe on two occasions. In both cases, the dish was Thai and so highly spiced with chilis that I couldn't taste anything else.

Joined Sep 21, 2001
I believe part of cooking is learning and understanding the ingredients. I think that better cooks have an ability to understand the synergystic aspects of what ingredient combining can do. Umami is a part of that. But to build a recipe around the abstracts of one particular taste can't turn out correctly. Might as well start a new restaurant where everything ingredient has to start with an "A".

I tend to think that restaurants that "latch on" to the latest food craze tend to "not be there next year".
Joined Dec 7, 2001
A recent article in the WSJ discuss the "fifth" taste:

"The food industry is embracing umami as part of an effort to deliver highly flavored foods to consumers while also cutting back on fat, salt, sugar and artificial ingredients. At the same time, more consumers are scrutinizing food labels for chemical-sounding words and unhealthy ingredients.

To understand the taste of umami, imagine a perfectly dressed Caesar salad, redolent of Parmesan cheese, minced anchovies and Worcestershire sauce; or slurping chicken soup; or biting into a slice of pepperoni-and-mushroom pizza. The savory taste of these foods, and the full, tongue-coating sensation they provide, is umami."
A New Taste Sensation -

Interesting, but I think nothing most of us didn't already know (i.e. building complex flavors is the name of the game, NOT Umami-fying everything).

Joined Aug 11, 2000
Umami in Hudson Valley was mediocre, but decor was great fun.
Was visiting my middle son at West Point and went on a field trip.....Umami caught my eye.
Took photos of the interior, but they are pretty rough.
Joined Jan 2, 2005
Been using it for about seven years now. It is interesting that years ago with called it Mouth Feel, now it has this Japanese name to go with it.

It is interesting to develop with it in mind. If you want to use MSG without using MSG, use seaweed reductions to accomplish it. Seaweed has massive amounts of MSG in it.

Cracks me up when we are doing Asian themed caterings, almost everyone spends their time telling me how they can not do MSG, all the while gobbling down 10 sushi hand rolls!

I am convinced 98 percent of these food things are what I refer to as "the lemming effect" and off the edge they go!

I know real allergies exist to MSG, that is the 2 percent I allowed for, the rest are just "sky is falling" pack runners!
Joined Aug 11, 2000
interesting.....I've not had bloated fingers in years and eat makimotos, loads of mushrooms....all kinds of products that have alot of MSG in their makeup.
But it was a reality after eating Chinese years the question is, does artifically developed MSG affect you differently than natural?
Or perhaps there have been new developments in Umami since the 70's-80's......
Joined Jan 2, 2005
More than likely due to something else in the food. Tons of things cause edema, hard to pin point a single incidents cause.

MSG is the same it has been since its 1959 entry as an FDA food recieving GRAS acceptance. Researched in the 1960's, 1970's, again in the 80's and a most recent review of all the science (peer reviewed science) in 1995 has always concluded it deserves the GRAS listing. No other product has been tested and retested as MSG.

All the science does recognize a portion of the population does have a reaction to MSG. And there is a higher probablility of a reaction if you suffer from asthma.
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