Foods that merit “delicious” start with how taste qualities in foods interact, and often involve the “fifth taste” – umami.
We’ve all done the “head nod” that happens when we taste a food and fully enjoy it. It’s that unconscious nod up and down as if to say “oh yes, this is delish” or perhaps we break into a blissful smile or make “yum-yum” sound effects. These precious food enjoyment experiences add pleasure and memorable moments to our lives.
From a sensory science perspective, these yum-yum moments relate to how palatable we perceive food to be. Palatability describes our acceptance of food, particularly our hedonic, or pleasure response to:1
- Flavor characteristics of foods which include the five taste qualities (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami), food textures and our sense of smell, and
- Other sensory input such as the appearance or visual cues like color and shape, tactile or touch sensations associated with foods and sounds like the crunch from a chip.
Assessing palatability can be a tool for understanding what makes foods more satisfying, and whether they merit the status of delicious. But don’t we do this naturally when eating? I sat next to a couple at a restaurant where each time they received a new course, they declared “it’s so tasty!” Their enthusiasm was fun, yet it wasn’t clear they recognized what flavor characteristics of the food appealed to them. Most people aren’t familiar with food sensory descriptors or to identify how palatability affects our food choices and relates to eating well.
5 Taste Qualities in Foods
The flavor characteristics of foods are primary drivers of palatability, and of these, the taste qualities are a good place to start learning more about why you like or don’t like certain foods. One way to examine this is to focus on the five taste qualities (sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami). Begin by pausing when you take a bite of food and ask yourself:
- Which taste quality did you notice first, then second, and third if possible. Sometimes foods with just one taste quality tend to be less nutrient-dense foods like a dessert that relies mostly on sugar or a food that overuses salt to cover up lower-quality ingredients.
- Was there a balance of several taste qualities that you enjoyed or did one stand out like the tang from fresh lemon added to a summer risotto?
- What did you like most or least and what would you have changed and why? It could be that you enjoyed a salty or sweet taste but it drowned out other taste qualities.
- Include a wide range of foods in these taste assessments such as those with bitter compounds like cooking greens or dishes that include ingredients high in umami like broccoli, parmesan, shiitake mushrooms, walnuts, dried tomatoes, prosciutto, dashi broth or chicken stock etc. (see list here).
Most people can identify the four taste qualities in foods, but the fifth taste known as umami, is less familiar in the United States. Umami is a Japanese word associated with savory, meaty, balanced and delicious qualities in foods that contribute to taste qualities and flavor in unique ways.
Umami’s primary source is an amino acid made in the body, glutamic acid, which is most often found in its ionic form, glutamate. We have specific taste receptors for glutamate, yet many people may not recognize it even though on average adults consume about 10-20 grams of free glutamate daily from a variety of foods. What is recognizable is that foods high in umami increase food palatability in unique ways that:
- Balance Taste: Umami helps make bitter foods more palatable by reducing the perception of bitter compounds found in many vegetables and grains.2 It may also boost sweet taste perception without increasing calories.3, 4, 5, 6
- Enhance Flavor: Salt is prized for its ability to enhance flavors in foods. Glutamate in foods also has this ability particularly when it’s combined with a sodium ion, as with a salted tomato, or with monosodium glutamate (MSG) seasoning. If MSG is used, it can decrease the need for sodium by up to 40% without reducing flavor.7, 8 Home cooks and recipe developers can use the perception of saltiness and flavor enhancement quality of umami in foods as a tool to make crave-worthy and satisfy foods that compete with popular restaurant and convenience foods.
- Improve Mouthfeel & Texture: Umami disperses well across the tongue, partly due to the broad distribution of umami taste receptors. It offers a mouthfeel which gives it a quality of making stocks more viscous and satisfying. Also, when you eat a food high in umami, the sensation of umami lingers longer than other taste qualities.9
These are indications that umami can increase satisfaction of nutrient-dense foods without added calories or sodium and increase food palatability in unique ways that make food more savory, delicious and full-bodied. So the next time you find yourself doing a head nod while eating a food that’s nutrient dense, you might recognize that feeling of “it’s so tasty” as a sign of umami.
Read more about the umami flavor profile: Chef Chris Koetke: Where Umami Foods are Found
- Anguah K, Lovejoy J, Craig B, Gehrke M, Palmer P, Eichelsdoerfer P, McCrory M. Can the Palatability of Healthy, Satiety-Promoting Foods Increase with Repeated Exposure during Weight Loss? Foods. 2017 Feb; 6(2): 16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5332909/
Kim MJ, Son HJ, Kim Y, Misaka T, Rhyu MR. Umami-bitter interactions: the suppression of bitterness by umami peptides via human bitter taste receptor. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2015;456(2):586-90.
- Mouritsen OG, Styrbæk K. Umami: unlocking the secrets of the fifth taste. New York: Columbia University Press; 2014.
- Hartley, I. Liem, Djin. Keast R. Umami as an ‘Alimentary’ Taste. A New Perspective on Taste Classification.Nutrients. 2019 Jan; 11(1): 182.
- Shim J, Son HJ, Kim Y, Kim KH, Kim JT, Moon H, Kim MJ, Misaka T, Rhyu MR. Modulation of sweet taste by umami compounds via sweet taste receptor subunit hT1R2. PLoS One. 2015 Apr 8;10(4):e0124030 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4390298/
- Temussi PA. Sweet, bitter and umami receptors: a complex relationship. Trends Biochem Sci. 2009;34:296–302. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19443222
- Marcus, J. Unleashing the Power of Umami: Inventive chefs and product developers are devising new applications for this time-tested food formulation tool, which amplifies flavor, aids in sodium reduction, promotes satiety, and more. Food Technology. 2009;63(11) https://www.ift.org/news-and-publications/food-technology-magazine/issues/2009/november/features/unleashing-the-power-of-umami
- Yamaguchi S, Ninomiya K. Umami and food palatability. J Nutr. 2000;130(4 Suppl):921S-926S. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10736353
- https://www.umamiinfo.com/what/whatisumami/ Accessed October 30, 2019.
Credit for main image: Photo by Jay Wennington on Unsplash