Sunday, July 22, 2007

And the fifth sense is.... Umami!

Most of us can list the senses of taste:
1. Salty
2. Sweet
3. Bitter
4. Sour
5. Umami


Scientists have identified the ability to distinguish a fifth taste, one the Japanese have known about for years: Umami.

Umami is a Japanese word that doesn't translate into English very well. The closest we can get to explaining it is "yummy" or "savory" or "delicious". It is the flavor of richness that comes from foods high in protein... "meatiness", the reason why a grilled mushroom tastes like a good substitute for steak. Also the reason why real cheese is more flavorful than the processed variety.

Very basically, umami is our ability to taste and detect protein.

How do we taste?

On the surface of our tongue are millions of cells with receptors on them. A receptor along with the chemical it detects, work like a lock and a key. Only one chemical or chemical type can "unlock" the receptor and in this example the "flavor".

Our tongues have different receptors for different tastes.

A "salty receptor" detects Na+ ions (sodium) and tells us when we are experiencing food high in sodium. This allows the brain to know what it is eating, and to learn from this experience. This is why we know to avoid certain foods with which we have had unpleasant experiences and why we may crave certain foods at different times. A craving for potato chips may be in response to your body needing sodium.

The same goes for all the other receptors

A "sweet" receptor responds to sugars like glucose and sucrose. Leptin which is secreted by fat cells actually closes off this receptor by opening potassium channels in the cell. Some think this may be a built-in way of your body telling you to "cut down on sweets" in response to growing, active fat cells.

do you crave sweets?

A "sour" receptor allows in a flood of H+ (hydrogen) ions. These ions are given off by chemicals that are acids. Acids have a sour taste. Think about citric acid and ascorbic acids which are high in fruits.

a sour expression

The "bitter" receptor is triggered by many different chemicals and signals an unpleasant taste to your brain. Many poisons trigger this response and make you want to spit out whatever food you just ate that tasted bitter. Alkaloids are in this category.

many greens like arugula and dandelion produce bitter alkaloid compounds that taste foul.

But the "umami" flavor receptor is triggered by the amino acid "glutamate" or "glutamic acid". This chemical is a building block of protein (as are all amino acids) and is known more commonly by the chemical name "monosodium glutamate" or "MSG".
Glutamate naturally occurs in foods rich with savoriness and meatiness. There is nothing artificial about MSG.

Foods naturally high in "umami" or glutamate.

However, like adding salt or sugar may make your food a bit tastier; adding MSG will too.

So if your food is lacking a little bit of punch, throw in a dash or two of MSG (brand names like "Accent") and see if it gives you the umami that you crave.


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