Salty, sweet, bitter, sour and... umami?

If Westerners define mainly 4 fundamental flavors: sweet, salty, sour and bitter, for the Japanese there is a fifth: umami. This fifth taste seems to provide much more than just flavor. It could be defined as a feeling of comfort, pleasure, richness and depth. In short, an indefinable taste, but truly delicious. An extremely tasty taste to the point of being addictive.


Wondering what it was that gave such a pleasant taste, such a lasting sensation and such an appetizing taste in the broths made from seaweed, it was in 1908 that Professor Ikeda isolated the molecule responsible: glutamate from kombu. In 1909, the industrial production of sodium monoglutamate began.

During the Pacific War, American soldiers taste the food rations of Japanese soldiers. Unlike theirs, they find them much tastier. It is the glutamate that increases this pleasant taste perception.

Since the post-war period, our industrialists, always on the lookout for new flavors and above all to increase their profits, rushed to reproduce and synthesize this addictive molecule present in nature. From that moment on, glutamate will be produced by the tons in an industrial way in the United States.

If this fifth taste is 100 years old in Japan, in the West it is only in 2001 that it was recognized.

The market for monosodium glutamate has developed particularly at the beginning of the 21st century. Its development is such that it is difficult to evaluate the global quantity used annually. Researchers estimate that food manufacturers are using 10 to 15 times more than in the 1960s. During 2011 and 2012, an estimated 45 million tons of sodium monoglutamate were used worldwide.

According to the same industrialists who manufacture this molecule, only 2% of the population is intolerant to it.

This is absolutely not the case when ingesting the glutamate naturally present in foods.


The fundamental difference between natural and synthetic molecules

There is a fundamental difference between synthetic molecules and natural molecules present in some natural products. A plant or a vegetable always contains a set of molecules and not an isolated molecule. Among this set of molecules, there is often one (or more) natural antidote that allows to counter the possible toxic effects of other components of this plant. This set of molecules sends clear messages to the brain which will understand very quickly and easily when the ingestion of food must be stopped because of intolerable substance or because of the absorption of too large quantities.

Who hasn't experienced digestion or diarrhea after a heavy meal or after a drunken night out? Vomiting and diarrhea are natural reactions of rejection and elimination of the body that seeks to get rid of an excess of food or substances that are intolerable for it.

When a chemical molecule is synthesized and added to a food (even if it is modelled on the structure of a natural molecule), the messages (vibratory among others) that it emits are totally biased, scrambled (because of the mixture of many other synthetic molecules) and therefore illegible or incomprehensible for the brain. Therefore, there will be no natural elimination reactions, no satiety signals registered or emitted by the brain to protect the body.

Natural molecules that provide umami

Natural nucleotides particularly stimulate umami. These are glutamate, inosinate and guanylate.

We find this taste in the foods we eat every day. It is very present in nature. Some cheeses such as parmesan, especially when aged, or tomatoes, also seem to contain the amino acid glutamate. The percentage of umami increases as the tomato ripens and the taste of the tomato becomes more pronounced. This taste is impossible to reproduce even when combining other tastes.

Carol Panne 7 November, 2017
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