Recently recognized as the fifth basic taste, umami differs from sweet, sour, salty, and bitter tastes by providing a meaty, savory sensation.
"The existence of umami and our understanding of how to manipulate it has a number of implications, not least of which is flavor enhancement," said the white paper, published this month by the US Mushroom Council.
"Simply stated, umami enhances gustatory satisfaction, creating both appetite appeal and satiety," it added.
An industry body that aims to promote the consumption of mushrooms, the Council's Umami: If You've Got it, Flaunt it paper claims to compile the most current science and information on umami in order to explain how the taste can be used to achieve maximum flavor advantage.
The paper targets chefs and the foodservice industry, but could also provide a useful round-up to food manufacturers looking for flavor alternatives in their product development.
To scientists, umami is the taste of many different amino acids, or the building blocks of protein. But to a consumer, umami has been shown to contribute a full-bodied taste to products, as well as a distinctive aroma and mouthfeel.
Although umami taste receptors were only confirmed six years ago by researchers at the University of Miami School of Medicine, from a culinary perspective the umami taste is not new. Fermented fish sauces and intense meat and vegetable extracts have been valued in world cuisines for more than 2000 years.
According to Jacqueline Marcus, chair of the Culinary Nutrition Program at Kendall College, Chicago, this inexplicable taste sensation can highlight sweetness, lessen bitterness and counterbalance saltiness. Indeed, proper use of the taste could even contribute to a 50 percent salt reduction without compromising consumer acceptance, she said.
In addition, recent research indicating that children who say they 'hate' vegetables may be overly sensitive to bitter tastes also suggests another possible role for umami.
The umami taste took off in the 20th century with the advent of monosodium glutamate (MSG), formulated in Japan in 1909 and launched into the US markets by 1917.
MSG and nucleotides are often used by product development technologists to enhance natural umami flavors. This may be because combined they work in synergy to round out food flavors when a food is missing something that has not been clearly identified.
According to Marcus, who wrote in the May 2005 edition of Food Technology, umami can also cut costs for food firms, since its natural flavor may allow for a reduction of more expensive umami-rich ingredients.
For example, by using flavor enhancers with umami, developers could reduce the amount of expensive dried mushrooms in a recipe formulation.
An imbalanced product tends to create taste fatigue. It may taste good initially but lose its appeal after a few bites. This can give the eater the impression that the food does not taste good, unless there are delicious, lingering after-effects which umami activators may provide.
In Western foods the umami taste comes from bouillon (originally formulated by the Swiss flour manufacturer Julius Maggi) which gives a similar meaty flavor to Asian dashi. In addition to MSG and glutamate, other umami taste activators are hydrolysed proteins, inosine monophosphate and guanosine monophosphate.