Do We Really Have a 5th Taste? What Is the Umami Fad All About?
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You know a food fad has permeated the mainstream when it has been covered on NPR, when restaurants all over the country are named after it, and the American Idol runner-up loves it. Well, that's where we are with umami, the Japanese-derived so-called "fifth taste" (after sweet, salty, bitter and sour) that's somewhere between richness and savoriness and has generated so much buzz these last few years as to no longer merit italics. Asked to name her favorite Idol-season meal in Los Angeles, Joplinesque second-placer Crystal Bowersox praised Umami Burger, which now has four locations. And so it spreads like Marmite, which allegedly purveys it: the notion that umami is cool, that umami is real, and that umami has always been here.
Hailed as the wow factor in food and now even wine, umami is not an ancient Japanese word for an ancient Japanese concept -- as is wabi, say, or sabi. Umami was coined in 1909 by Tokyo Imperial University chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda after he performed experiments to see why he so enjoyed seaweed broth. Identifying the source of his pleasure as glutamic acid, an amino acid produced by the human body and present in many foods, where it results from the breaking down of proteins through cooking, aging, and ripening. Ikeda invented a revolutionary process for isolating crystalline monosodium glutamate -- "the flavor in its purest form," we read at the Japan Patent Office's website. Ikeda patented this process and, with a partner, promptly began manufacturing MSG under the brand name Ajinomoto.
Umami was not discussed among the samurai or in the haiku of Basho. A mashup of umai, meaning "delicious," and mi, meaning "essence," this term and concept were created singlehandedly by the founder of Ajinomoto, a corporation whose net income topped $182 million last year, according to its own website -- thanks largely, no doubt, to umami's trendiness. While glutamate occurs naturally in other foods, such as Parmesan cheese and soy sauce, MSG is the world's leading instant-umami shortcut. With offices in 22 countries and manufacturing facilities in fourteen, Ajinomoto runs very powerful PR. This takes the form of deluxe international umami symposia, offshoots such as Glutamate.org (whose lustrous website offers such feel-good headlines as "Savoury taste can help lower blood pressure" and "Scientific study shows no link between MSG and obesity") and a steady stream of company-sponsored studies avowing the goodness of umami and the safety of MSG.
Resurrecting MSG's Reputation?
Is the umami fad nothing more than a massive counterattack against a few decades of anti-MSG bad press? MSG is the prime suspect in "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," the postprandial numbness, tingling, headaches and heart palpitations first identified by Maryland physician Robert Ho Man Kwok in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968. A battle-of-the-researchers has raged ever since, with competing studies insisting that MSG both is and isn't good for you.
Connect the dots and you'll find that Ajinomoto funds many if not most pro-MSG studies itself, through its creation of the International Glutamate Technical Committee, its membership in such outfits as the International Life Sciences Institute, and its ongoing maintenance of the Ajinomoto Amino Acid Research Program -- aka 3ARP -- which conducts its own research and offers $100,000 grants to individuals and groups working on the "identification of, and support for, innovative research initiatives that investigate novel functions/properties of amino acids."
Such palsy-walsiness with scientists yields not just pro-MSG, gotta-have-umami studies but countless articles glibly citing those studies. Some of these articles are authored by the scientists themselves. In the April 2010 issue of the trade journal Perfumer & Florist, neuroscientist Alexander Bachmanov of Philadelphia's Monell Chemical Senses Center asserts: "It is now proven that umami is one of the primary taste qualities." And: "Umami tasting compounds, such as glutamate, not only influence food flavor, but also have beneficial nutritive and health effects." Subheads peppering Bachmanov's article include "Glutamate: More Than a Taste Stimulus" and "Do Humans Need More Umami Taste Stimuli?" (Here's a spoiler: yes.) A postscript reads: "The author has been supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and Ajinomoto Co." You don't say.
Foodies, how does it feel to be played?
First published in Nature in February 2002, a study led by University of California-San Diego neuroscientist Charles Zuker identified "taste receptors" -- specialized cells clustered into taste buds -- that are designed specifically to respond to amino acids. This study has been widely cited ever since as proof of our inbuilt "taste for umami." In 1999, Zuker founded Senomyx, Inc., which develops novel flavors and taste enhancers for the food-and-beverage industry. According to its own website, Senomyx receives discovery-and-development funding from Ajinomoto.
Wait, so our species has been eating for five million years, and it took this long for us to notice a fifth taste? Zuker and his colleagues have identified taste receptors that respond specifically to the other four -- sweet, salty, bitter, sour -- and now apparently to umami too. But who's to say another four or fourteen or four hundred tastes aren't lurking somewhere in the flavor spectrum waiting to be singled out, assigned clever names, and funneled into fads or industries or both? Might spicy-hot, gingery and creamy be the sixth, seventh, and eighth tastes? What if some flavor crucial only to the cuisine of Australian Aboriginals or Tanzanian Bantus is the long-awaited ninth? Who gets to choose?
Umami is the world's most successful marketing scheme. I'm all for seaweed broth -- and for Parmesan cheese. But one of the reasons umami is so easy to promote is that it's a bit amorphous. Addressing the Eighth International Congress of Applied Chemistry in Chicago in 1912, MSG maestro Kikunae Ikeda declared: "An attentive taster will find out something common in the complicated taste of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, which is quite peculiar and cannot be classed under any of the well defined four taste qualities, sweet, sour, salty and bitter."
Well, hell. Even as defined by its creator, umami is elusive enough to be all-inclusive.
MSG's Culinary Magic
As a food writer, I'd been hearing about umami for years when, at a trade show last fall, the Kikkoman soy-sauce company was handing out booklets on umami accompanied by chocolate truffles said to be infused with umami. The sweets were exquisitely boxed, the booklets printed on thick lush paper. Because soy sauce is naturally rich in glutamates, Kikkoman -- as the best-selling soy-sauce company in Japan and the United States -- beats the umami drum bigtime, operating several websites including DiscoverUmami.com: "Kikkoman products infuse the Umami taste into any dish. … Kikkoman is Umami. Umami is Kikkoman." As for the chocolate truffle, it tasted just the faintest bit salty. Was it richer, fuller, reminiscent of asparagus? Not really, although for a few minutes there I thought it did because I had been told it would.
Ikeda's antidefinition of umami lets those who claim they can identify it feel superior. I taste it. I'm attentive, they can say. Aren't you?
Tsinghua University psychology professor Seth Roberts, author of the bestselling book The Shangri-La Diet (Putnam, 2006), touts his "Umami Hypothesis," which is that our bodies naturally crave this flavor in order to trick us into eating bacteria.
"We like certain foods -- foods that taste sour, umami, or have a complex flavor -- so that we will eat plenty of bacteria," Roberts tells me. "We don't crave the bacteria; we like those three flavors. Long ago, when we evolved, those three flavors were good signs that the food had a lot of bacteria. Food that was more sour had more bacteria than food that was less sour, for example, because bacteria converted sugars to acids, and acids taste sour.
"The umami hypothesis is that we need regular immune stimulation to be in optimal health and long ago, when we evolved, we got that stimulation from bacteria in our food," says Roberts, who used to teach at UC Berkeley. "Bacteria in food was so important for health that we evolved three different food preferences -- for sour, complex, and umami flavors -- to make sure we got enough of it." Now as ever, he says, "bacteria-laden food is the natural way to stimulate the immune system."
Linking MSG with nightmares and other health problems, Roberts is anti-MSG:
"I believe we like the taste of MSG because glutamate is created when proteins are digested by bacteria. We like glutamate because we need to eat bacteria to be healthy. Bacteria are too big and varied to detect directly; it's much easier to evolve a glutamate detector. The problem is that now you can have glutamate in your food without bacteria."
He recommends slaking the umami jones with naturally glutamate-rich foods such as soy sauce, seaweed, and cured ham.
"Long before MSG, cooks did things that increased the umami of their food. MSG is an excitotoxin. … To get umami via MSG is no help and perhaps harmful. Our liking for umami is a sign that we should eat plenty of fermented food, not a sign that we need MSG. Adding MSG to food obviously doesn't make it fermented."
While even the Mayo Clinic has to admit that no definitive link has ever been found between MSG and "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," anecdotal reports are so prodigious that the FDA requires manufacturers to list MSG on the labels of products that contain it.
"MSG is considered 'generally recognized as safe' or GRAS by the FDA," explains the agency's Siobhan DeLancey. "It is considered a food additive and must be named on ingredients lists by its 'usual or common name,' which is monosodium glutamate. There are people who cannot tolerate MSG and other glutamates. However, the vast majority of people can tolerate MSG. Furthermore, adverse reactions due to MSG intolerance are not life-threatening like those due to true food allergies.
"FDA requires the labeling of the eight major allergens, which are peanuts, tree nuts, soybeans, milk, eggs, wheat, crustacean shellfish and fish. These are foods that can cause severe allergic reactions and death in certain people," DeLancey explains. "While MSG is not a recognized allergen, people with an intolerance can avoid it by reading the label. … I a product says 'No MSG,' it also should not contain ingredients that are sources of naturally occurring glutamate such as ingredients listed as 'flavor mixes' and 'spices.'"
That's not enough for Jack Samuels, who launched the Truth in Labeling campaign in 1994, after being diagnosed as hypersensitive to MSG. Before that, he had been collapsing after restaurant meals for nearly twenty years. For him, it wasn't a matter of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome but Every Restaurant Syndrome, because MSG is contained in a wide variety of ingredients called by a wide variety of names in order to disguise it, from yeast extract to hydrolized vegetable protein to sodium caseinate.
"People typically have dinner out and then say, 'I feel so good.' After having dinner out I always felt sick," says the retired hospital administrator, who estimates that 40 percent of Americans experience bad reactions to MSG, and that 2 to 3 percent -- amounting to some 9 million -- experience reactions as serious as his.
Samuels tirelessly confronts food-safety agencies and scolds members of the press for publishing what he calls "glutamate-industry propaganda dressed up" as feature stories and news reports. At TruthinLabeling.org, he proffers an endless stream of statistics and studies linking MSG with obesity, migraines, asthma, brain damage, seizures, heart irregularities, lesions in the hypothalamus, and other horrors.
He also rails against Ajinomoto and the rest of the glutamate industry.
"Every time someone has a finding that shows MSG is dangerous, the glutamate industry has a study funded to show that the first study is wrong. They draw upon their stable of cooperating scientists and fund them to do another study which may very well have been designed or written by the glutamate industry. They're very good at recruiting scientists from highly regarded universities." When the umami fad began, "they started spending big money in an attempt to get some scientists to declare that MSG was the 'fifth taste.' These aren't really studies," seethes Samuels, who says he has been threatened by glutamate companies twice.
"MSG kills brain cells and causes a variety of adverse reactions. It doesn't matter if you call it umami or not," he declares, adding that hydrolized proteins manufactured in the United States contain propanols, which the UN/WHO-affiliated Codex Alimentarius Commission consider carcinogenic and genotoxic. In other words, as Samuels tells everyone who will listen, at least one source of umami causes cancer.
Meanwhile, the Umami Information Center, founded by the Umami Manufacturers' Association of Japan, held its first umami workshop in Paris on April 17th. During the workshop, adults and their children heard a lecture about umami, then learned to cook Japanese okonomiyaki pancakes. As we read at UmamiInfo.com,: "The children were very excited to learn the secret of umami, and their parents left feeling inspired to incorporate umami into their daily cooking. … The Umami Information Center was able to put together a textbook for French children."
With the help, we also read, of Ajinomoto.