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Innovating Memorable Taste With Umami

April 20, 2023

“Successful plant-based product design isn’t about designing what consumers say they prefer in surveys–it’s about designing what they actually love. Umami is the key to crafting the products consumers crave.”
By Roberto Faria, Principal Flavorist, Culinary

The attentive food enthusiast will recognize a common element in the complex taste of sun-dried tomatoes, fresh sardines, mature parmesan and a well-aged steak – a taste that is quite distinctive and cannot be categorized as sweet, sour, salty or bitter. That taste is umami.

Umami is the savory taste that makes us crave something, but which, until recently, no one had really put a finger on and described. Although first scientifically identified in Japan in 1908, it was not until 2006 – almost a century later – that the taste bud receptors for umami were discovered. Umami was then finally elevated to the status of the fifth basic taste alongside sweet, salt, sour, and bitter.

My own fascination with umami dates back two decades. During that time, I have come to understand how perceptions of umami vary widely around the world. While consumers in Vietnam, for example, love a strong, sweet umami taste with a pronounced lingering sensation – you can cross the border to China and the Chinese consumers prefer umami completely without the aftertaste.

The reason why meat and fish have a natural umami taste is that both contain a combination of glutamic acid and ribonucleotides in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an energy-carrying molecule found in the cells of all living organisms. When an animal dies, ATP is the energy source in the muscles that enzymes gradually break down into the umami-enhancing ribonucleotide known as inosinate.

Many plants also contain glutamic acid, and mushrooms contain ribonucleotides – but when plants and fungi are harvested, enzymes do not release the amino acids.


There are two routes to ‘umamifyin’ the savory plant-based products of the future. One is to combine technologies in an umami modulator that delivers an umami taste while stimulating a mouth- watering mouth coating or rich, lingering after-taste. The other is to ferment the plant protein, liberating the inherent amino acids that deliver an umami taste.


Simply put: The umami taste receptors are in fact ‘protein taste receptors’; they are activated mainly by glutamate, nucleotides as well as some others amino acids.

The intensity of the umami depends not only on the amount of these compounds in the recipe but also their interaction with other ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat, and acidity. It depends on whether the dish is hot or cold and if the texture is liquid, solid, or something jelly or sticky in-between.

By combining sweet, sour, salty, and bitter tastes with mouthfeel and aroma, we can design a product that consumers in a region will like more than similar products on the market. But, if we want to design a product that is unlike existing products on the market, umami is key.

To encourage consumers to adopt novel plant-based formats in their daily diet, we need to umamify.


Many consumers confuse umami with MSG; monosodium glutamate, which is a flavor enhancer. Umami is specific protein molecules, glutamic acid, that is released from its bound form into free amino acids.

Food such as fresh meat, fish and dairy products, as well as some protein-containing plants like soy, contain glutamic acid, but in its acidic form, bound with other amino-acids. The rich umami taste is delivered when glutamic acid reacts with compounds containing for example sodium, ammonium, or potassium.


We have umami receptors in our mouths as well as in our stomachs. The stomach receptors inform the brain that ‘umami packed food’ is being processed, in order for the pancreas to elicit extra enzyme production in the digestive tract, to break down what is assumed to be protein dense. This extra enzyme production will increase digestive wellness.

  • Sodium: Where MSG has a sodium content of 12.4%, full-bodied umami modulators contain zero sodium.
  • Fat: Umami can compensate with fullness when reducing fat.

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