Enhance umami to hit label trends

by Jeff Gelski
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Technically speaking, umami is the taste quality associated with several amino acids, especially the amino acid L-glutamate, according to the Monell Center in Philadelphia. Greg Mondro, senior flavor chemist for Cargill Flavor Systems and based in Cincinnati, takes a more sensory approach. He uses words like “succulent” and “mouth-watering” to describe umami, a human taste quality similar to sweet, salty, bitter and sour.

By enhancing the overall flavor of foods, umami may assist companies wanting to create products with reduced sodium and/or simple labels.

To make up for a loss of sodium from salt, monosodium glutamate (MSG) may add umami flavor to chicken, beef, pork, seafood, vegetables or dairy products, said Yusuf Bhatia, senior flavor chemist for Cargill Flavor Systems. MSG has less sodium, at 12%, than salt, at 39%. MSG also is more cost-efficient than other ingredients, such as yeast extracts, used in sodium-reduction formulations, he said.

However, coming in at eight syllables, monosodium glutamate may not be ideal for companies wanting products with simple labels and simple sounding ingredients. Products promoted for having no MSG reached U.S. supermarket sales of $1.8 billion for the 52 weeks ended May 14, 2011, which was up from $1.5 billion in the previous 52-week period and $1.4 billion for the 52 weeks ended May 16, 2009, according to The Nielsen Co., New York.

Companies wanting simple labels will need to build back umami flavor, Cargill’s Mr. Mondro said. Mr. Bhatia said industry seems to be okay with using yeast extracts in simple label products.

The amino acid L-glutamate, a source of umami flavor, also may be found naturally. According to the Monell Center, high levels of glutamate are present in many protein-rich foods, including meats and cheese, as well as in vegetables such as mushrooms, peas and tomatoes.

“There are many foods that are rich in umami character — cheese, tomatoes, meat, fish, mushroom and others,” said Joanne Ferrara, senior director of research, quality and innovation for Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings, Omaha. “The inherent glutamate and ribonucleotides provide a savory enhancement to enrich the palate. These compounds are a ‘hidden secret’ because they occur naturally in the development stage.”

Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings likes to take a customized approach to sodium reduction, she said.

“Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings has been successful with customers who are willing to share recipe information, which allows us to better understand contributions from specific components from a flavor and functionality standpoint,” she said.

Ingredient suppliers are promoting innovations in the areas of umami, simple labels and sodium reduction.

DairiConcepts, Springfield, Mo., earlier this year introduced Ascentra, a powdered ingredient that has been shown to lower sodium content by 25% to 50% in a range of food systems. It boosts salt perception, savory nuances and umami effects. Ascentra does not contain MSG, hydrolyzed vegetable protein or yeast extract.

Levels as low as 0.5% have been used to reduce salt and remove MSG from soup and snack foods, create crackers and boost the meat, cheese and vegetable flavors of meal kits, sauces and kits. Ascentra does not contain potassium chloride and thus has no metallic flavor notes.

Kikkoman Sales USA, Inc., San Francisco, offers a natural flavor enhancer that starts with the elements of soy sauce in wheat, soybeans, water and salt. Fermentation liberates the amino acids responsible for umami richness, including high levels of glutamic acid. Through a proprietary brewing process, the company reduces typical soy sauce flavor, aroma and color to create a neutral savory flavor booster.

The Kikkoman natural flavor enhancers allow for sodium reduction of 30% to 50% without loss of flavor intensity, pleasantness or saltiness and without the use of MSG, hydrolyzed vegetable protein or yeast extracts. They have been shown to improve the flavor of meat, poultry, seafood, soups, dressings, marinades, baked foods, snacks, dry mixes and seasoning blends.

Mizkan Americas, Inc., Mount Prospect, Ill., points to research from Japan to show how vinegar may work as a flavor enhancer. In a study that appeared in the Journal of Food Science in 2009, researchers established individual detection thresholds for both salt and vinegar in distilled water solutions among a panel of female students. They found adding low concentrations of vinegar to foods may enhance the perception of saltiness and allow food manufacturers to cut salt without affecting taste.

Mizkan offers a range of vinegars from white distilled vinegar, to apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, malt vinegar, seasoned and unseasoned rice wine vinegars, sherry vinegar, tarragon flavored vinegar, balsamic vinegar, raspberry white wine vinegar, corn sugar vinegar and specialty blends.

Savoury Systems International, Branch-burg, N.J., offers both yeast extracts and hydrolyzed vegetable proteins. At the

Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition June 12-14 in New Orleans, the company handed out samples of cold and hot soups as well as broth shots. A strawberry umami soup and a low-sodium chicken orzo were two examples.

Science may play a role in future umami flavor enhancers. The Monell Center in 2009 confirmed a taste receptor plays a role in human umami (amino acid) taste. Variations in the genes that code for the receptor correspond to individual variation in sensitivity to and perceived intensity of umami taste. Findings were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Studying human taste receptors may lead to new flavor enhancers.

“We will not be able to develop a pure salt substitute,” said Leslie J. Stein, senior research associate at the Monell Center, on June 14 at the I.F.T. event. “We will be able to develop sodium enhancers to enhance the perception of saltiness.”

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