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Umami: Fifth Taste? Flavor Enhancer?

By: Alexander Bachmanov, Monell Chemical Senses Center
Posted: March 12, 2010, from the April 2010 issue of P&F magazine.

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Like most people, I firmly knew in my childhood that there are four tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. I first learned this in my native language, Russian, then in German, and finally in English. I was quite comfortable with this concept until I became interested in taste science. Then, it appeared to me that some foods have a taste quality that could not be described by any of these four sensations. What was this other taste sensation? It turns out that I was not the first person who wondered about this. Over a century ago, a Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda, was trying to explain “the peculiar taste” arising, for example, from fish or meat, which he believed was distinct from the four known tastes. He called this fifth taste “umami” (loosely: deliciousness/savory) and found that it is evoked by glutamic acid and its salts.

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