Food ingredients

Umami: The master touch that makes all difference in food formulations

Oriental food, which has the umami taste.

Difficult to describe, easy to like.

The umami taste may sound like something new, but it has always been present in a wide variety of foods. The first attempt to describe it came from the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908.

At the time, Ikeda found out that in a Japanese broth made of seaweed (kombu dashi), there was a different taste from those known at the time: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Intrigued by the discovery, the chemist called the new umami taste, a derivation of the word umai, meaning “delicious taste.”

Ikeda has discovered that we are extremely familiar with savory, sweet, acid and bitter tastes. However, umami has a very different feature, often being interpreted as something else than certain products present.

But what does this something else consists of?

Umami occurs when the proteins present in foods like cheeses and meats undergo molecular modifications and are broken into several units.

One of these units is L-glutamate, the amino acid responsible for umami.

Our experience with this taste occurs when glutamate binds to specific receptors on the tongue, causing a chain of chemical reactions that result in umami.

By having a great acceptance, the food industries began to add the umami in many products, through ingredients rich in this specific taste.

In this context, monosodium glutamate showed up, and soon became the standard additive to ensure umami in the formulations.

It was all good. Consumers satisfied with the “something else” of products like instant noodles, soups and snack foods. The industry was happy with the results and with the economical price of glutamate.


The other side of monosodium glutamate

Commercial monosodium glutamate is an FDA approved food additive, responsible for enhancing the flavor of products such as spices, sauces, sausages, frozen food, among others.

Usually, when we think of monosodium glutamate, we automatically associate it with umami taste, being the most commonly used ingredient for this purpose.

However, there are several issues regarding the possible health damage that excessive consumption of monosodium glutamate can cause.

This additive has, on average, 21% sodium in its composition. As it is generally used in formulations that already have a certain amount of salt, it is not hard to exceed the established limit of daily sodium intake (1,500 mg) when consuming many products with the addition of monosodium glutamate.

The sodium content of monosodium glutamate may be one of those responsible for causing increased blood pressure if consumed for long periods of time.

Excessive sodium intake is associated with the development of cardiovascular diseases, which are responsible for the highest mortality rate in the world.

Therefore, reducing sodium in food has become a focus of both the food industry and regulatory agencies.

Other adverse effects of excessive consumption of monosodium glutamate have also been reported. Among them, headaches, nausea, palpitations, weakness, tingling and intense sweating.

All these factors have encouraged the substitution of monosodium glutamate for other ingredients that contribute to the umami taste in food formulations, however, without impairing the health of the population.

But how can this substitution happen?

Several foods have high amounts of glutamate and can be used as a source of natural aroma rich in umami. Below is a list of the quantity found in each one:

•  Beef: 107 mg/100g;
•  Pork: 337 mg/100g;
•  Chicken meat: 40 mg/100g;
•  Tomato: 246 mg/100g;
•  Mushroom: 150 mg/100g;
•  Soy: 66 mg/100g;
•  Potato: 102 mg/100g;
•  Carrot: 33 mg/100g;
•  Parmesan cheese: 1200 mg/100g;
•  Green tea: 668 mg/100g;
•  Tuna: 188 mg/100g;
•  Shrimp: 43 mg/100g.

A study used umami-rich aromas produced from natural sources (yeast extract, tomato, fermented soy products and shiitake mushroom extract) in minced meat at a level of 0.5% (w/w), the same proportion of monosodium glutamate.

These formulations were compared in sensory terms to investigate whether umami-rich natural ingredients are capable of replacing monosodium glutamate in foods.

The research found out that the sensory group had a greater perception of umami taste when natural ingredients were used in contrast to monosodium glutamate.

This may have occurred because of a synergistic effect between glutamic acid and the 5′-ribonucleotides in the final product.

In addition, the presence of volatile compounds in natural ingredients may have increased the perception of umami among tasters.

These evidences show that it is possible to replace monosodium glutamate by achieving a successful result using natural ingredients.

Some examples of natural ingredients rich in umami

A company has developed an ingredient based on bakers yeast. It has high concentration of glutamic acid, several amino acids and nucleotides, being these components responsible for the umami taste.

According to the formulators who developed the ingredient, the use of it in foods allows a reduction of 25 to 50% in the sodium content. In addition, the yeast strain used is the same as the bakers use daily, hence the name of it.

Other benefits of the ingredient are that it is classified as a clean label, does not contain genetically modified organisms and improves characteristics such as color, odor and flavor.

Another alternative also 100% clean label and natural, without the use of any additive, are natural aromas of chicken and swine. This category of ingredient, being derived from fresh, umami-rich raw materials, is a viable option to enhance the flavor of the formulations without the need for monosodium glutamate.


Few people can accurately describe what umami taste is. However it is almost unanimous that it gives a special touch to food, which makes all the difference.

This unique characteristic made the umami become part of multiple food formulations, with the addition of monosodium glutamate.

This additive, however, has been constantly related to negative aspects of human health, mainly due to its sodium content.

To replace monosodium glutamate without giving up the umami taste in the products, there are already viable alternatives.

Natural aromas from umami-rich sources present themselves as a possible way, combining pleasant taste, sustainability and greater care for consumer health.

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