Yeast Extract: The natural way to boost umami

by Donna Berry
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Food formulators and culinary professionals can deliver umami while maintaining simple ingredient statements through the addition of yeast extract. (photo: canolainfo.org)
 
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, food formulators acknowledge umami as a pleasant savory taste sensation that “rounds out” or “completes” other flavors in a system. It provides deliciousness to meat and poultry products.

The challenge for food formulators and culinary professionals is to deliver umami while maintaining the clean, simple ingredient statements that today’s consumers often demand. This can be accomplished through the addition of yeast extract, an ingredient rich in glutamatic acid. This is an amino acid responsible for instilling the umami taste in foods.

Yeast extract and autolyzed yeast extract are basically the same ingredient. It is typically bakers’ yeast that has been conditioned to self-digest its protein structure into simpler amino acids, including glutamic acid, so that those amino acids can add depth of flavor to food.

Yeast extract relies on the non-essential amino acid of glutamic acid to enhance flavor, along with many other essential and non-essential amino acids that carry nutritional benefits. It’s important to note that the body requires glutamic acid. It provides a direct energy source for the brain to function at a high level, as it stimulates mental alertness and improves memory function.

Monosodium glutamate, more commonly referred to as simply MSG, is an isolated and highly concentrated form of glutamate, one of many forms of glutamic acid. It has a bad reputation because many believe it can cause severe reactions in people who are hypersensitive to it. The misconception has been in relating the two, and believing that yeast extract imparts similar concentrated levels of glutamic acid.

The two are different. In fact, MSG is an unacceptable ingredient at Whole Foods Market; yeast extract is not on that list. The natural foods chain clarifies on its website that yeast extract and other hydrolyzed proteins, among other ingredients, are completely natural ingredients that happen to have substantial amounts of glutamates, but nowhere near the concentration found in MSG. That’s because yeast extract is a full protein, made up of many organic compounds and has a full amino acid profile.

Yeast is a tiny, single-celled organism found everywhere in nature. Yeast is also a critical ingredient in many foods and beverages, with different yeast used in varied applications. This includes familiar products such as bread, beer and wine. Yeast also functions as Mother Nature’s flavor enhancer. In the meat and poultry industries, applications include marinades, sauces and rubs.
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