Illustration of Umami

1908 Umami

The book of science

Tom Sharp

Kikunae Ikeda food science Illustration of Umami


Kikunae Ikeda discovered the savory taste, called umami, from the chemical monosodium glutamate in kelp, tomatoes, meat, and Chinese takeout, and added to our list of basic tastes— sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and fatty. Actually, fattiness is a recent addition. More on that later.

Bottling the essence

Animals and plants didn’t evolve MSG so we could find them more savory. We evolved to appreciate MSG so we would eat what’s good for us. Now you can buy it in a bottle a white, odorless, crystalline powder, and companies process it into food products declaring it only as a “flavoring.”

Don’t begin

The basic tastes don’t begin to complete a description of the human perception of taste. The perception of flavor in the mouth is mostly our sense of smell, and we distinguish ten thousand smells. The acids, tannins, alcohols, the different sensations other than tastes contribute to the complex balance. Genetics affect one’s distaste or enjoyment— the number of taste buds that speckle one’s mouth or how sensitive one is to broccoli bitters.

Some might say it’s perfectly natural to extract sugar from beets or cane, or to grow MSG with vats of genetically altered bacteria. Others say anything refined from natural plants or animals is a drug and not a food, like opium extracted from poppies. At any rate, the amount of free glutamates consumed in natural foods is limited by the size of the stomach, whereas the amounts of glutamic acid in packaged foods (soup to nuts) seem out of proportion.

See also in The book of science:

Readings in wikipedia: