The science of savory

by Donna Berry
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Cravings for the fifth taste will grow as consumers explore more ethnic cuisines and cooking techniques.
Cravings for the fifth taste will grow as consumers explore more ethnic cuisines and cooking techniques.

While sensory scientists historically recognized only four basic tastes – bitter, salty, sour and sweet – Japanese culture has long held the notion of a fifth taste referred to as umami. Today, flavorists and food formulators acknowledge umami as a taste sensation that rounds out or completes other flavors in a system while functioning as an overall flavor enhancer.

The Protein Connection

Much like how sweet signals carbohydrate energy and sour suggests rotten or spoiled, umami implies the presence of protein. It’s no wonder that the term umami is often used interchangeably with savory, a descriptor associated with a juicy steak, succulent pork chop and moist meat loaf.

This fifth taste most notably comes from glutamate, the salt of the amino acid glutamic acid, which is naturally found in many foods, most notably animal proteins. Umami is also associated with various nucleotides, including inosinate, which is inherent to meat and fish, and guanylate, which is most abundant in vegetables. The taste of umami is very subtle, with most people unable to recognize it when encountered but missed when absent.

With umami recognized as the fifth taste, the Japanese concept of kokumi has started to emerge. Kokumi is a sensation that consists of a good initial flavor punch, a well-balanced profile, rich mouthfeel and a long-lasting taste perception. It, too, is described as a savory sensation and is associated with proteinaceous compounds produced by fermentation.

Ingredient Options

Traditional savory ingredients include hydrolyzed proteins (animal and plant), monosodium glutamate (MSG) and yeast extracts. By far, MSG is the most cost-effective flavor enhancer and dominates the savory ingredients market, according to Dallas-based research firm MarketsAndMarkets. However, it is slowly being replaced by yeast extracts and other alternatives due to the health issues associated with its consumption, which include headache, flushing, nausea and weakness. All-natural and clean-label formulating trends are additional motivators for processors to seek alternatives to purified MSG.

Overall, the savory ingredients market is projected to grow annually by about 5.7 percent from now until 2019 when it will reach approximately $13.3 billion. Drivers of this market include increased use of plant proteins, with or without animal proteins, and the need to flavor them up. Another driver is better-for-you formulated luncheon meats and ready meals, as better-for-you often translates to reduced flavor.

“Fat, salt and sugar have been getting a lot of attention over the past few years and manufacturers have started to cut back on these ingredients,” says Stephanie Solesio, global food marketing manager for Bio Springer, based in Paris, France. “This change in formulation presents a challenge for the industry, as fat, salt and sugar contribute taste-enhancing properties, in addition to texture and shelf-life.

Solesio explains, “We specifically work on healthier formulations to bring back taste in those ‘reduced’ products. Yeast ingredients have the advantage of providing a wide range of flavors, alongside umami taste, mouthfeel and even richness, allowing for a real taste experience for consumers.”

Compared to MSG, yeast extract has a more natural halo. “Yeast extract is used in stock and bouillon cubes, which are traditional ingredients in grandma’s cupboard,” she explains.

Savory Soy

Soy sauce is a natural source of glutamate.
Soy sauce is a natural source of glutamate.

Another familiar ingredient is soy sauce, which is a natural source of glutamate. When used in prepared foods, it can be declared on ingredient statements as soy sauce with its components, which typically are void of MSG, parenthetically itemized. It can be used in meat and poultry applications at levels below the flavor threshold to provide extra kick and deliciousness.

Not all soy sauces are created equal. Some are made by combining flavorful and colorful ingredients such as hydrolyzed soy protein, caramel color, corn syrup and more, while others develop flavor and color through fermentation. That’s the case with naturally brewed soy sauce from Oak Brook Terrace, Ill.-based Kikkoman Sales USA, which is made with only four label-friendly ingredients – soybeans, wheat, salt and water – and brewed over several months, producing almost 300 identifiable constituents. These constituents work together as a team to create flavor and aroma. They are the direct result of several reactions that take place concurrently during the extended fermentation step.

Brewed soy sauce contains just the right amounts of amino acids in the right proportions – glutamic acid being among the most predominant – to act as natural flavor potentiators and umami contributors. Furthermore, the ingredient appears to work synergistically with salt to produce an enhancing effect.

Assisting with sodium reduction is another driver of savory flavors. “Our salt-reduction tools work as taste and flavor enhancers,” says Kees van Wetten, sales manager for Scelta Mushrooms, based in the The Netherlands.

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