We’ve all experienced the flavor harmony that happens when you let chili simmer overnight, or when a fresh batch of salsa tastes better after you let it sit for a while. Why do these flavors become more cohesive and how is that sensation achieved? This is the story of kokumi, and the innovative work being done at Ajinomoto Health and Nutrition (AHN) to harness kokumi for improved taste, mouthfeel, nutrition, and more across food and beverage applications.  

The cutting-edge research coming from our scientists is exciting. We’re continuing to expand our knowledge on the mechanisms underpinning how kokumi works,” said Chef Chris Koetke, corporate chef for Ajinomoto Health and Nutrition. 

To unlock kokumi’s innovative possibilities, we must understand its history. The story of kokumi may well go back to the beginning of food preparation and cooking itself, but the work of unravelling the mystery began in the 1980s. Researchers at The Ajinomoto Group made the startling discovery of what’s behind this mysterious taste sensation, and called it “kokumi,” from the Japanese words for “rich” (koku) and “taste” (mi). 

By this time, The Ajinomoto Group had already emerged as the savory taste experts due to the discovery of umami. Umami was first identified by Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda in the early 1900s while he enjoyed a bowl of seaweed broth, or kombu dashi. He noticed the dashi’s savory flavor was distinct from the four basic tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty so he called it “umami” which literally means “essence of deliciousness” in Japanese. 

How kokumi impacts food

While umami imparts a savory taste or meatiness, kokumi provides a sense of richness, body, and complexity that some compare to the way cheeses and wines age and improve over time. It delivers a richer, longer-lasting flavor that fills the entire mouth. Kokumi substances make foods taste, smell, and feel better, enhancing not only umami but also salty and sweet flavors. 

The benefits of kokumi are far-reaching and applicable across a wide spectrum of foods, improving continuity, mouthfeel, and body. At a time when flavor is taking root in food trends and consumer demand for genuine cultural food experiences is increasing, kokumi improves flavor authenticity, enhancing aged and fermented notes. Beyond flavor harmony, kokumi’s ability to impact mouthfeel can enhance low-fat, low-sugar, low-sodium, and plant-based products. It can make low-fat foods more palatable by increasing juiciness, creaminess, and thickness. Other promising low-fat applications include sausage, yogurt, ice cream, custards, and salad dressings. 

The true benefit and our advantage in understanding kokumi is how it can be used to improve foods to meet the higher taste demands of consumers while allowing for better nutrition.

The science behind kokumi

Unlike umami, kokumi doesn’t actually have a distinct taste by itself, and that’s part of what made it so mysterious. For years, we’ve known that there are certain characteristics in well-cooked, aged, and fermented products that cannot be delivered through the use of basic taste or aroma compounds. Instead, kokumi functions by enhancing other tastes and aromas, and triggering specific receptors in the tongue, contributing to the enhanced flavor harmony and mouthfeel we see when chili has cooked overnight. 

When searching for a solution to this mystery, The Ajinomoto Group’s scientists found answers by investigating garlic and onion. Garlic and onions have been cultivated, valued, and utilized since ancient times all over the world for medicinal and culinary purposes. They bring a richer, deeper flavor to soups, stews, and countless other global dishes. But what connects garlic and onions to kokumi?

If you’ve ever gotten watery eyes while dicing an onion, or found a lingering garlic smell on your fingers hours after grating a clove, you’ve experienced the force of these vegetables. Those powerful sensations come from the presence of sulfur compounds released by the plants’ cells when they are chopped or crushed. Ajinomoto scientists identified one of those compounds by isolating a peptide, or chain of amino acids, called glutathione, found in garlic and onions. 

Glutathione is a tasteless and odorless tripeptide. When added to basic tastes, it creates a boost in flavor. This discovery sparked a long, innovative, and exciting road toward unravelling the mystery of kokumi.

Solutions to unlock kokumi

Today, our scientists at AHN have found that umami and kokumi are both essential to achieving deliciousness, especially in sodium-reduced foods. We’ve become the world’s leading experts in applying umami and kokumi to foods to reduce sodium without compromising on taste. 

Delivering the unique characteristics and impact of kokumi can be tricky if you don’t have the right technologies. Knowing this particular challenge, our team of scientists spent years developing the Savorboost™ line of yeasts and yeast extracts. This product line was designed specifically for creating the taste of umami and the sensation of kokumi, bringing together separate concepts to elevate the deliciousness of food and address nutritional challenges. 

The Savorboost™ line includes products that can deliver both umami and kokumi in applications like plant-based proteins, seafood, dairy and non-dairy cheese sauces and dips, savory dips and sauces, and more. 

Believe it or not, there’s still work to be done in unravelling the mystery of kokumi, and there’s always work to be done in bringing more nutrition and lifestyle benefits to people around the world. At Ajinomoto Health and Nutrition, we continue to explore the versatility of kokumi in a myriad of applications to help address nutritional challenges without compromising on taste. We believe that science is at the heart of great taste, and delivering that is both our expertise and our promise. Partner with us today to discover what nutrition without compromise can do for you. Visit us at ajihealthandnutrition.com to learn more.