How many flavors can you taste?
Way back when we were taught that there were four basic flavors: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. These are the ones you can’t get by combining any others—they’re primary flavors, in the same way that red, yellow, and blue are primary colors.
A few years ago we started hearing about a mysterious 5th flavor known as umami.
Umami is described as a rich, satisfying, mouth-filling, savoriness. It’s that delicious something you enjoy when you eat umami-rich foods like aged beef, mushrooms, soy sauce, and Parmesan cheese, and that something can’t be explained by the four primary flavors.
Umami’s breakthrough came in 2000 when researchers at the University of Miami identified specific umami receptors on the tongue. That discovery put it in the same category as sweet, sour, salty, and bitter; in other words, we had a genuine, fifth primary flavor. The culinary world was rocked—it was akin to biologists suddenly discovering a third ear on the back of everyone’s head, or astronomers locating a new planet right in our solar system.
In fact, umami is nothing new—just newly embraced by western food scientists. It’s a traditional flavor enhancer for Asian cooking, where it’s concentrated in ingredients like soy sauce, dashi, bean pastes, and oyster sauce. It’s the reason that just a touch of ham can amplify the flavor of pea soup and a mere sprinkle of Parmesan does wonders for a pasta dish.
Here comes kokumi.
Just when we were getting used to the idea of umami as a 5th flavor, researchers are honing in on a candidate for flavor number 6. Sort of.
Kokumi has no taste. Some food scientists are arguing that there are distinct kokumi compounds and kokumi receptors on the tongue, which would qualify kokumi for primary flavor-hood. But unlike the other five, kokumi on its own is flavorless.
Kokumi compounds are most plentiful in onions, garlic, cheese, and yeast extract (fish sperm too, but who’s counting), and are said to multiply in the slow-cooking or aging of foods. Combine kokumi compounds with other ingredients and pow!—it’s a flavor bomb. When the tongue’s kokumi receptors are activated the kokumi alters other flavors, adding a hearty richness and roundness. It deepens the sweetness of sugar and makes savory foods taste more savory.
Kokumi has been promulgated by researchers from Ajinomoto, the same Japanese food and additives company that sold the taste world on the idea of a fifth basic taste, umami, a decade ago. There’a a healthy skepticism, particularly among scientists in the west, who question whether a flavor enhancer can be considered a true flavor. There’s also speculation that kokumi-containing foods are merely activating calcium receptors on the tongue, rather than their own distinct receptors.
Whether it’s a flavor or just a flavor-enhancer, kokumi excites food scientists, nutritionists, and food processors on both sides of the debate. It’s flavor-boosting properties could mean less added salt in salty foods, sweet foods that are lower in sugar, and richness achieved with less added fat.
Kokumi just might hold the potential for healthier diets.