By Will Sullivan
Contributing Writer, [GAS]
Ask serious gourmets or gourmands what humans can taste, and they’ll tell you: “Salt, Sweet, Sour and Bitter… oh, yeah, and then there’s ‘Umami,’ but it’s a mystery, no one really knows what it is…”
“Umami” is Japanese for “
delicious savory,” and until recently, it was a mysterious food “taste” or maybe sensation, that was largely unqualifiable, and certainly unquantifiable. The great French chef Escoffier first postulated this “fifth taste,” although it’s named in honor of a Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, who discovered in 1908 that the amino acid glutamate (as in monosodium glutamate, MSG) added something…extra…to seaweed soup.
Now, a century later, a Chinese scientist in San Diego has discovered that the effect of umami is a binary process—i.e. it takes two chemicals, in tandem, for the process to occur on your tongue; both molecules together trigger unique taste-bud receptors that don’t otherwise respond to anything else. What’s cool about this is that while MSG works, it also causes side effects in a small percentage of people—headaches, dizziness, and it may cause neurological disorders—so this research may show the path towards developing new, safe “umami” flavor enhancers.