THE UMAMI OR FIFTH TASTE SENSATION!

6 min


All of us are familiar with the basic taste sensations. They include taste sensations like sweet, salt, bitter and sour. Most of us would also have an idea about this fifth taste sensation known as umami. While we are very familiar with the other four sensations of taste, umami is quite different and queer in its own sense. Further, the controversies revolving around this taste sensation over the past few decades is also not uncommon. Today in this article let’s probe into this fifth sensation of taste and MSG (monosodium glutamate), a common component of umami. To all the Chinese cuisine lovers out there, brace yourselves for a fun read!

So most of us are aware of a lot of cuisines these days and have relished them at least at one point in our lifetimes. Our awareness of the diverged cuisines and our access to a variety of food has expanded our knowledge as well. Our generation has the fortune of getting to know all these types of foods more than our parents or grandparents. Thanks to the internet and the online food platforms that make an exquisite meal or a dish available at your doorstep. Subsequently, a taste sensation was discovered and added to the human taste buds. Eventually, it’s the umami or the fifth sensation of taste.

THE BIRTH OF UMAMI:

The word ‘umami’ is a Japanese word. This literally means the ‘essence of deliciousness‘. According to them the meaty flavour of umami when added to food is said to deepen the flavour of food. By 2002, it was found that the tongue had certain taste receptors for this sensation. So, what is the big deal with this umami? It is nothing but the taste of protein. Yes, you heard it right. Umami is the taste of glutamate (a derivative of protein). Glutamates are the building block of proteins. On the other hand, MSG or monosodium glutamate is a mixture of two simple molecules sodium and glutamate (a common amino acid). It is a part of a lot of food we consume on a regular basis.

A Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda discovered this agent almost 110 years back. In 1908, this scientist was savouring a bowl of kelp broth (aka kombu dashi). He identified a flavour distinct from the other basic taste sensations. He named this sensation umami. Later he discovered that this taste sensation was nothing but the taste of glutamate or glutamic acid.

Ikeda also found out the chemical reaction that led to the production of the seasoning or the flavouring agent commonly used across a wide variety of cuisines. So, he isolated the glutamate from a bowl of noodles broth and added it with sodium that kind of enhanced the umami taste sensation of any dish. Commonly known by the brand name Ajinomoto. Further, this was also a staple seasoning agent across a lot of Asian kitchens.

THE FEELING OF UMAMI:

Firstly, we know that the tongue consists of taste buds which are specialized cells that help us to detect the taste of food we consume. These taste buds detect the taste of food we intake after the food is mixed with the saliva and starts to disintegrate into smaller pieces.

Umami is the signature savoury flavour in foods like mushrooms, cheese, broth etc. This taste is recognisable in foods that are fermented and cooked to the point that the complex proteins are broken down into simpler proteins. This eventually, leads to the release of the protein glutamate. Glutamate is produced in enough quantities by the body for all metabolic functions. But, we also tend to take extra glutamate in our diet.

While all these specialized types of cells known as the tastebuds are helpful in detecting particular sensations. The taste buds pick up the umami. This property of umami also makes it linger around in our mouth for longer periods of time. Further, this gives us a mouth-watering sensation after a meal.

THE QUESTIONS REVOLVING AROUND UMAMI:

So, the major question revolving around this food additive is about its safety. Many people and scientists started demanding researches and studies revolving around the safety of the additive. This was quite reasonable as there were no studies supporting the safety and trials on animal and human subjects.

Also, the letter by Dr Robert Kwok to a prestigious medical journal listing the set of symptoms of an illness that he experienced after consuming food from a Chinese restaurant that contained MSG. This was just a hunch. But at that time they had no idea that this would become major sensationalist journalism for the next 40 years. This incident also dramatically changed the world’s relationship with MSG. This gave rise to debates, international panic and biased science. This letter by Kwok was titled the “Chinese restaurant syndrome”.

According to the Food and drug administration, MSG is considered a safe product to consume. However, as most of us know still there are a lot of controversies that remain around the use of MSG.

PROBLEMS WITH UMAMI:

Glutamate plays a major role in digestion, muscle function and immunity. The glutamic acid present in MSG is a neurotransmitter. This is an excitatory neurotransmitter. It kind of stimulates the nerve cells to relay or transmit information. Certain people believe that this neurotransmitter can cause excess glutamate can cause an increased amount of nerve stimulation.

Studies done in 1969 support this theory. Large amounts of MSG was injected into the brain of newborn mice. This caused a lot of neurological defects that were harmful.

SYMPTOMS OF MSG ALLERGY:

Some people may be sensitive to this additive. The set of symptoms that a person experiences after exposure to MSG is called MSG symptom complex. Some of the symptoms include,

  • Headaches
  • Muscle tightness
  • Tingling
  • Weakness
  • Flushing
  • Numbness
  • Certain studies have also showed obesity in subjects who consume MSG on a regular basis. Further, animal studies have also supported this theory.
  • Also, in certain studies, MSG was taken in unrealistically high doses. There was a surge in blood pressure and an increased frequecy of nausea in certain subjects.

SAFETY MEASURES:

In case you still remain doubtful about the use and the addition of MSG in your food always check the label for the addition of these substances in the labels of your food.

MSG is also an additive in a lot of processed food. Avoiding them can go a long way in reducing the intake of MSG.

To sum up, this MSG has varied concepts around the world. Some people claim this MSG to be completely safe while others consider this is a harmful neurotoxin. It is important to remember that MSG is totally okay in moderate doses. Remember to avoid MSG totally if you have experienced any side effects during a previous intake. A simple way to remember is that MSG is present more in low quality processed food. If you are focused on taking a healthy and balanced diet then you need not fear the presence of MSG in your diet.


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Dr Kavitha M

I am an undergraduate degree holder in dentistry. I have a great interest in music and reading. I am a linguaphile. My areas of interest lie in psychology, medical imaging, diagnostics, and oncology. I am a person who focuses more on the emerging areas of forensics.

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