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.
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.
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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Savory flavors have become increasingly necessary in the growing heat-and-eat meal category, as consumers expect the protein component to be flavorful and succulent. They do not realize that raw meat, for the most part, has little flavor. Flavors develop when heat is applied and can vary by species and the amount and proportion of various compounds.
Further, just as quickly as flavors develop, they can also disappear or change from exposure to the elements, challenging ready-cooked meats to maintain flavor over shelf life. Thus, processors include savory flavors to enhance flavor intensity, bringing back authenticity and adding aroma and taste.
The Barber Foods-branded line of stuffed chicken breasts from AdvancePierre Foods, based in Cincinnati, recently underwent eight months of research and development, which included a complete ingredient review, a processing assessment and product testing. The product transformation includes new techniques to deliver a more flavorful breast of chicken, a home-style flour breading and more and better filling to ensure each chicken breast is bursting with flavorful ingredients.
Delivering consistent flavor, batch to batch, is another reason why processors add savory flavors. They can also improve the flavor of lower grades of meat.
In some applications, savory flavors provide cooking cues such as barbecued, fried, grilled or smoked. For example, authentic hot-off-the grill taste is a highly craveable savory flavor. This is the flavor profile developed on the old-fashioned, charcoal barbecue or fire pit, not the modern-day gas grill. Outdoor grill flavors develop when juices from the food drip down onto the hot coals or wood. The drippings are pyrolyzed by the heat, creating fumes that are reabsorbed into the meat.
For most commercial prepared meat manufacturers, cooking by charcoal barbecue or fire pit is not realistic. Flavorists have learned how to reproduce these flavors, even taking them further by adding the flavor of a wood fire, such as apple, cherry, hickory or mesquite.
“We know certain ingredients contain natural umami and smoke flavors act like a trigger for the umami sensation,” says Nick Russell, commercial vice president-savory solutions for Frutarom Savory Solutions in Germany. “This enables us to use label-friendly ingredients to formulate savory flavors.”
Some such label-friendly ingredients are those associated with hot sauces. Hot sauce can be a source of umami and if used at low enough levels, it does not have to contribute noticeable heat.
Judson McLester, executive chef and manager of ingredient sales at Avery Island, La.-based McIlhenny Company explained that the company’s original Tabasco red sauce is more than heat because of the fermentation that takes place during the aging process.
“This creates umami characteristics that enhance other flavors in food, rounding out a food’s overall flavor profile,” he says. “We work with industrial food manufacturers as well as foodservice operators to show them how recipes come alive when Tabasco ingredients are added. A little goes a long way, all without adding much in terms of calories. In fact, lower-calorie, lower-fat foods are a common application, as Tabasco ingredients contribute to a full-body, satisfying experience, something that might be lacking when fat is reduced.”
This can be helpful in meat applications, because sometimes heat is not satisfying enough. “Hot and spicy food choices continue to rise as consumers all over the world are increasing the consumption of these items,” explains Gary Augustine, executive director-market development for Kalsec in Kalamazoo, Mich. “But consumers are looking for more depth in their heat experience, not just having the food item hot. That’s where umami and savory flavors come into play.”
Russell adds, “We are seeing the interest for spiciness shifting from sheer hot to interest in the different nuances delivered by spices, from sweet to smoky.”
Cravings for the fifth taste will continue to grow as consumers explore more ethnic cuisines and cooking techniques.