February 11th, 2006

Strong Bad-Tally Ho

Umami and my own ignorance

I was reading an article about how foods smell and its relation to nutritional value and how US Agriculture first modified fruits and vegetables to make them hardier and disease resistant. As we know, those first genetic changes often reduced the flavor of produce. Now scientists are often more concerned with improving the taste but retaining the hardiness and resistance to disease. Anyway, I come across the following line:

"The human tongue senses just five flavors - sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, sometimes called savory - and scent provides considerable added information about a food."

Umami? Why had I never heard of umami? And why was looking up umami like six degrees of separation?

The Discovery of Umami

It's a short page, really. I work at a children's nutrition research center, and our director is on the International Council of Amino Acid, which is evidently non-coincidently based in Japan. Per the website, "Glutamate is an amino acid, and is a building block of protein. Professor Ikeda found that glutamate had a distinctive taste, different from sweet, sour, bitter and salty, and he named it "umami"."

And unshockingly enough, the next paragraph talks about the development of monosodium glutamate (MSG). Asian food and MSG! Get out! ;D

Several researchers at our research center do research into glutamates and I've seen the articles they publish about it.

And yet, I've never heard of umami. In school they just talked about sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Even had charts of the tongue of which areas tasted each flavor. I don't remember any umami areas. What's up with that? The American school system failing in science education? Probably. :(