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Do We Really Have a 5th Taste? What Is the Umami Fad All About?

Is the umami fad nothing more than a massive counterattack against a few decades of anti-MSG bad press?
 
 
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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. 

 
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