The man who discovered umami

Did you know we owe seaweed for helping discover umami?

Kikunae Ikeda a Japanese chemist and professor at Tokyo Imperial University had been studying a broth made from seaweed and dried fish flakes called dashi. Through numerous chemical assays, Ikeda had been trying to isolate the molecules behind its distinctive taste. In a 1909 paper, Ikeda claimed the flavor in question came from the amino acid glutamate, a building block of proteins. He suggested that the savory sensation triggered by glutamate should be one of the basic tastes that give something flavor, on a par with sweet, sour, bitter, and salt. He called it “umami”, riffing on a Japanese word meaning “delicious”.

Ikeda’s paper was not well received, and it took over a hundred years for the term “umami” to be internationally recognized. Over the decades, scientists began to put together how umami works. Each new insight brought the claim put forth by Ikeda into better focus. The discovery that made umami stick was about 20 years ago, showing that there are specific receptors in taste buds that pick up on amino acids. Multiple research groups have now reported on these receptors, which are tuned to specifically stick onto glutamate.

Ikeda, found a seasoning manufacturer and started to produce his own line of umami seasoning. The product, a monosodium glutamate (MSG) powder called Aji-No-Moto, is still made today. (Although rumors have swirled periodically that eating too much MSG can give people headaches and other health problems, the US Food and Drug Administration has found no evidence for such claims. It just makes food taste more savory.)     

While other food items have umami flavors, it was seaweed that gave the term life.