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How Umami Works

Umami in the Food Industry

Kikunae Ikeda, the identifier of umami, wasted no time capitalizing on his find. In 1909, one year after identifying monosodium glutamate, he partnered with an iodine processer to patent a commercial MSG-based seasoning, as well as a method of extracting MSG from wheat, a richer source of glutamic acid than seaweed. His hope was to offer an easy way to enhance the taste of nutritious but nondescript homemade meals and thus improve the overall health of the Japanese people [source: Ninomiya]. It's ironic, then, that for many people, MSG as a food ingredient is code for junk food, cheap and unhealthy.

It's true that umami compounds are a favorite additive in the food industry, where their ability to intensify other tastes and add depth and satisfying texture makes them a kind of default "flavor potentiator" [source: Souza]. Besides MSG, you'll see it listed by its industrially prepared sources, including hydrolyzed wheat protein, texturized vegetable protein and autolyzed yeast extract [source: Marcus]. Because these are all natural substances, although they may also be made in laboratories, MSG may be listed simply as "natural flavors" [source: Yacoubou].

Yet, these same qualities could make umami useful in improving the nutritional profiles of commercial formulations. As a flavor enhancer, it can reduce the need for unhealthy ingredients. Also, when made with potassium chloride, rather than sodium chloride, it can replace sodium in some foods. Its meatiness, which creates a fuller mouthfeel, could make low-fat foods more filling and satisfying to eat [source: Marcus].

The applications can be especially beneficial to older adults, who often experience weakened senses of taste and smell and people who take medications or treatments that destroy sensory cells [source: Marcus].

Health considerations aside, umami is one of the hottest trends among cutting-edge chefs and their clientele. The gourmet hamburger chain Umami Burger is named for it and exploits the taste by adding powdered mushroom and seaweed to its ground beef and topping the burgers with soy sauce [source: Geiling].

The home kitchen also provides opportunities for umami utilization. We'll wrap up this investigation with some ideas to spark your culinary creativity.