Umami—the fifth basic taste generated by an amino acid
Umami was first discovered more than a century ago by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo), who laid the fundamentals for the study of physical chemistry in Japan. Dr. Ikeda first discerned the umani taste in kombu dashi (kelp stock) used for yudofu (bean curd hot pot). He identified it as a taste that could not be created from the four well-known basic tastes of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter; he named it umami, the fifth basic taste.
In 1908, Dr. Ikeda succeeded in extracting 30 g of the umami compound from about 12 kg of kombu (kelp) and discovered that umami is the taste of glutamate, one of the amino acids.
Today, the Japanese word umami is used world-wide to describe this taste, and the story of its global acceptance as the fifth basic taste begins with Dr. Ikeda's discovery.
The first step in the global recognition of umami was at an international conference, the Eighth International Congress of Applied Chemistry, in 1912 (New York)
The first presentation on umani at a global academic conference, the Eighth International Congress of Applied Chemistry, was given by Dr. Ikeda in 1912. The title of his presentation was On the Taste of the Salt of Glutamic Acid. At the beginning of the presentation he said:
Those who pay careful attention to their taste buds will discover in the complex flavour of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, a common and yet absolutely singular taste which cannot be called sweet, or sour, or salty, or bitter...
At that time, this presentation attracted little attention from the attendees. The taste he called umami was long familiar in Japan, since kombu (kelp) is a part of daily life. On the other hand, in the West umani was neither familiar nor recognized as a basic taste. Over many decades the concept of this "fifth taste" was accepted globally as the result of increasing international scientific evidence, unequivocally establishing umani as a basic taste.
Mathematical analysis as an independent test of the fifth basic taste
Detailed electrophysiological and taste sensory studies were carried out over the course of many years to elucidate the physiological function of umami and its source, monosodium glutamate (MSG). However, MSG was believed to be a flavor enhancer, and thus umami was not initially categorized as a basic taste. The concept of umami as an independent taste was not widely accepted. The paradigm began to shift at the First International Symposium on Umami Taste, held in Hawaii in 1985, which attracted various researchers from many countries.
Dr. Shizuko Yamaguchi*, a researcher at Ajinomoto Co., Inc., applied a mathematical analysis method in her study of umani and clearly showed that it was the fifth basic taste. The study investigated the differences and similarities of taste stimuli caused by 21 test samples. She calculated the numerical distance between umami and the four well-known basic tastes from the investigational results using this mathematical method and plotted them on a multidimensional scaling matrix. As shown below, Dr. Yamaguchi succeeded in showing the degrees of similarity among the four well-known basic tastes and umami. This figure shows that the spatial distribution of each of the four well-known basic tastes outline a tetrahedron, and umami clearly represents another dimension and is an independent taste.
The analysis and its results were reported in a book comprising the proceedings from the symposium called "Umami: A Basic Taste", and umami as an international academic term came to be used widely in scientific fields.
Umami: A Basic Taste
*Shizuko Yamaguchi, Doctor of Agriculture. Appointed Professor at Tokyo University of Agriculture in 1997 following more than thirty years of taste research at Ajinomoto Co., Inc.
Entry into the international lexicon
Rise of worldwide recognition
In 1985, the international symposium in Hawaii stimulated strong interest in umami among academic researchers around the world, leading to much research on umami and its perception, particularly in the field of electrophysiology. The Second International Symposium on Umami Taste was held on the island of Sicily in Italy in 1990. The 27 related research reports presented there were published as a special issue of the international academic journal Physiology & Behavior, and the use of umami as a technical term and the performance of umami-related research including receptors rapidly became accepted worldwide.
Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary 8th edition
©Oxford University Press 2015
The 100-year transition from discovery to global acceptance The umami taste and "Japanese cuisine"
About 100 years have passed since the discovery by Dr. Ikeda of umami as the taste imparted by glutamate. Many studies about umami, a key component of dashi, are vigorously being conducted, and the latest research on umami is beginning to reveal important roles in physiological function and health condition. The traditional cuisine of Japan called "Washoku", which is represented by the traditional Japanese food culture of dashi, is considered a healthy diet with good nutritional balance. The profile of umami was raised when "Washoku" was inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. On a global level, top chefs around the world are currently endeavoring to innovatively incorporate umami into various recipes in ways that enrich their savory experience and health value.
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Eat Well, Live Well – the abiding aspiration that began with the umami seasoning AJI-NO-MOTO® more than a century ago.