Yummy Umami: The 6th Basic Taste?
Quick, name the 5 basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty…and the fifth one is umami. Umami is the word that describes the savory taste of food, or perhaps “meatiness” of a food. It is the taste of the amino acid L-glutamate. The Japanese singled out this flavor in the early 1900s thanks to a chemistry professor from the Imperial University of Tokyo, Kikunae Ikeda, who isolated the glutamic acid compound C5H9NO4. Glutamic acid is found in both free and bound forms. The free form, which is formed when the protein molecule breaks down and releases glutamic acid, is the one we taste. “Umami” means in Japanese, literally, deliciousness.
A few years ago, I remember there was some hype that spread virally through America’s highly-informed (and often misinformed) consumer culture about MSG.
What is this lethal-sounding additive in the foods we eat, so cleverly covered up by only using three letters to trick us when we know better? It was soon known that MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is an ingredient added to most processed foods in order to enhance their flavors. In the media, MSG was linked to many ills, including migraines, nausea, and cancer, among others.
Wariness and fear of MSG actually began in the 1970s, after Dr. Ho Man Kwok wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that he was experiencing all sorts of uncomfortable after-effects from a Chinese dinner, including numbness, weakness, and palpitations. He did not specifically link his symptoms to MSG, but a year later a study was done on baby mice by injecting high dosages of MSG (up to 4 grams per kilogram of body weight) and observing the brain lesions the mice suffered afterwards. Thus was born Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS). Studies, anecdotes, and reports were quick to follow suit afterwards, claiming that MSG was linked to all sorts of ills. Some prominent nutritionists today are convinced that added MSG is harmful, especially for children.