Utilizing umami to its fullest potential

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It’s no secret that parameters for food formulation and manufacturing are shifting quickly. One of the FDA’s biggest initiatives heading into the new year includes reducing daily sodium intake for consumers, with short-term targets set for April 2024. While consumers continue to express an interest in healthier options, taste still seems to be the driving factor behind purchases in purchasing. According to a 2023 study from the International Food Information Council, “healthfulness” is stated as a key driver for six in ten respondents, but the importance of taste still ranks number one as a purchase-driver, and has increased from 80% in 2022 to 87% in 2023.

Striking the balance between healthful food options and delicious products that consumers are primarily drawn to will remain a top challenge for food manufacturers in 2024 and beyond. 

Exploring the versatile power of umami, our fifth basic taste, gives food manufacturers a cost-effective tool to deliver more healthful options without compromising on flavor. 

The discovery of umami

Glutamate, a crucial amino acid, is present in diverse foods like tomatoes, cheese, and mushrooms. We perceive it as a taste called umami which signals the body’s recognition of a vital energy source, dietary protein, evoking a perception of deliciousness. Umami is as old as prepared food itself, but our knowledge of umami is relatively new. 

In the early 1900s, Dr. Kikunae Ikeda was the first to identify glutamic acid as the source of savory taste. He called this fifth taste umami, which means the “essence of deliciousness” in Japanese, and co-founded The Ajinomoto Group to produce monosodium glutamate, the purest form of umami. 

MSG has been safely and effectively used to add our fifth basic taste to food ever since. MSG is a seasoning that combines sodium with glutamate, bringing out the savory deliciousness of food and adding dimension to the flavors. But despite MSG’s proven safety and efficacy, the United States witnessed a wave of anti-Asian xenophobia in the 1960s, leading to unfounded fears about MSG. Triggered by a 1968 letter in the New England Journal of Medicine, this misinformation impacted Chinese restaurant owners, compelling them to display “No MSG” signs. 

Today, this lingering narrative in the United States is fueled by disingenuous branding and marketing efforts, which confuses consumers and handcuffs product formulators. Ajinomoto Health and Nutrition is making successful strides toward setting the record straight, armed with facts, science and international and federal safety approvals. The truth is, this globally beloved seasoning unlocks the versatile power of umami, and the way it’s produced couldn’t be more transparent. At Ajinomoto Health and Nutrition, MSG is manufactured through advanced fermentation technology using locally grown corn.

The potential of umami

Although MSG is the purest and most straightforward way to add umami to food products, Ajinomoto Health and Nutrition provides numerous tools that leverage umami, like monopotassium glutamate (MPG), and more, to help solve the growing problem of high sodium levels in food. According to the FDA, 90% of Americans are eating more sodium than is recommended, resulting in major health complications such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

Despite its incredible potential, umami in general, and MSG in particular, are vastly underutilized. Data shows a 25-40% reduction in sodium is possible in specific product categories when MSG is substituted for a portion of the salt in the recipe. This means food companies can create products that reduce sodium without sacrificing flavor, thanks to umami. 

MSG has two-thirds less sodium than table salt and can enhance the flavor of food while decreasing the need for salt. MSG separates into sodium and glutamate when it’s exposed to water in foods or saliva in the mouth, which is why the body cannot distinguish between the glutamate inherently present in foods (such as Parmesan cheese) and added MSG.

The team of scientists at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition has found that umami is a critical tool to help achieve deliciousness, especially in sodium-reduced foods. The company has established itself as the world’s leading expert in applying umami to foods to reduce sodium without compromising on taste. 

The future of umami in food manufacturing 

Umami has a bright and versatile future in the United States, as food manufacturers seek innovative ways to balance taste, flavor complexity, and nutrition. While health concerns become more rigorous and prompt actions like the FDA sodium reduction targets, consumer demand for deliciousness and flavor innovation will not disappear. This is why food manufacturers must utilize every tool at their disposal to maximize flavor and nutrition. 

The challenge of cost-effectively reducing sodium while maintaining delicious flavor can be addressed by embracing our fifth taste. And harnessing the power of umami via MSG is a critical step for forward-thinking food manufacturers seeking to create food that is both tasty and more nutritious. To learn more about Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition’s comprehensive solution portfolio, visit www.ajihealthandnutrition.com.

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