Umami is one of the five taste sensations detectable by humans, together with sweet, bitter, salty and sour. It is the taste quality associated with several amino acids, especially the amino acid L-glutamate, and is described as a ‘hearty, savoury’ taste, playing a part in the profile of a number of foods, including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products.
As consumers are turning away from artificial additives, manufacturers have increasingly been looking for natural alternatives and Givaudan claims that removing flavour enhancers such as MSG (monosodium glutamate) is at the heart of this drive. However, removing flavour enhancers while retaining flavours that consumers find desirable presents significant challenges to manufacturers.
Givaudan’s global head of its savoury division Andreas Haenni told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “In terms of taste, many customers consider umami and clean label enhancement to be as important as salt reduction – and for some customers, it is even more important.”
The company says that it has discovered molecules associated with umami as part of its TasteSolutions programme, by analysing “traditional fermentation processes, cooking techniques and artisanal ingredients” from around the world. This research, as well as its research into taste perception, forms the basis for its new clean label ingredients.
Givaudan’s EAME group leader for the culinary centre of expertise Matthew Walter said: “It is important to understand how the balance and harmony of taste affects the eating experience. Taste is not just about commonly used enhancers such as MSG or IMP/GMP [disodium inosinate/disodium guanylate] alone – it is a much more complex phenomenon. Understanding the contribution that other taste ingredients make and using them in the right balance is essential to creating deliciousness.”
In addition to umami, Walter explained that Givaudan is also exploring the Japanese concept of kokumi, which refers to this balance and taste complexity, and the company creates blends of taste ingredients which it says provide better kokumi than the use of a flavour enhancer alone.
Controversy around MSG in particular has continued, even though the US Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization and the European Scientific Committee for Foods all agree that consumption of the ingredient at usual levels does not pose a health risk. But as many consumers still shun MSG as an undesirable additive, food manufacturers are complying by producing MSG-free foods.
A 1992 study carried out by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology did identify symptoms which occurred among some people after consuming MSG-treated food, such as chest pain, headache, nausea, rapid heartbeat and drowsiness, but noted that these tended to be suffered after consuming (abnormally) large quantities of MSG.
However, a recent review by researchers from Scripps Clinic in San Diego report that, despite “anecdotal reports and small uncontrolled studies alleging a variety of MSG-induced reactions […] decades of research have failed to demonstrate a clear and consistent relationship between MSG ingestion and the development of these conditions” (Clinical & Experimental Allergy, May 2009, Vol. 39, pp. 640-646, A. N. Williams et al.).