I've been watching today's Paul Hollywood's Pies and Puds, and they have just had a shown a segment where they create seaweed dessert to sample a fifth human taste, umami.

Apparently the perception of human taste consists of;

  • sweet
  • sour
  • bitter
  • salty
  • umami

The way the programme was pushing this umami seemed disproportionately enthusiastic, for a man who usually acts so bored you're wondering whether he's paying attention, or trying to remember if he's left the tap running in the downstairs bathroom.

I can see how the marketing of such a food stuff could have industry wide benefits, similar to the case of "super fruits", and immediately smelled a rat.

There seems to be some criticism of the concept online, and evidence that the food industry has at least responded to the concept if not engineered it.

Is there any evidence, academic or otherwise, to suggest that umami has a sufficiently tangible taste to be considered as an identifiable flavor?

  • 7
    What is the specific claim you want examined? That Umami exists? It's well documented to exist, and is well explained at Wikipedia, including scientific research on the topic. Is there some specific claim of which you are doubtful?
    – Flimzy
    Nov 20 '13 at 16:27
  • 2
    I'm saying I don't entirely trust Wikipedia's sources, and I'd be expecting to find a certain level of scientific research. It wouldn't be a possible hoax if there wasn't. At the time, 'Research' was circulated in support of Superfruit. I'm asking someone on here who will be, ostensibly, independent of such research. Nov 20 '13 at 16:34
  • 1
    @JohnSmithOptional: There is a difference between taste and flavor, already addressed in this answer. I'm not sure how that relates to your question, though...
    – Flimzy
    Nov 20 '13 at 16:51
  • 4
    I think this question would be greatly improved by removing the theory about a marketing strategy. Just focusing on whether Umami is real ought to be sufficient, and then it will be much more focused as well.
    – Flimzy
    Nov 20 '13 at 17:15
  • 2
    I don't think you should edit the question to remove "taste" and replace with "flavour", when the only 'notable claim' is that umami is a taste.
    – ChrisW
    Nov 20 '13 at 21:46

Yes, umami exists as a taste and is distinct.

Triggering mechanisms have been identified (http://www.pnas.org/content/99/7/4692.short):

human T1R1/T1R3 responds to the umami taste stimulus L-glutamate, and this response is enhanced by 5′-ribonucleotides, a hallmark of umami taste.

It is listed without controversy in peer-reviewed work (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092867403008444):

Sweet and umami (the taste of monosodium glutamate) are the main attractive taste modalities in humans.


The sense of taste is responsible for detecting and responding to sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami (amino acid) stimuli.

It is distinct from the other tastes (same ref):

In humans, monosodium L-glutamate (MSG) and L-aspartate, but not other amino acids, elicit a distinctive savory taste sensation called umami.

The theory that it is a distinct taste has testable predictions that have checked out (same ref):

If T1R1 combines with T1R3 (T1R1+3) to generate the mammalian umami receptor, then a knockout of T1R1 should also eliminate all umami responses.

Here's more recent work (2009) saying the same thing (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/90/3/723S.short):

The uniqueness of umami perception is based on several lines of evidence. First, numerous perceptual studies have shown that the sensation aroused by MSG is distinct from that of the other 4 taste qualities. Second, biochemical studies that show the synergy of the binding of MSG and 5′-guanylate to tongue taste tissue mirror this hallmark perceptual effect. Third, several specific receptors that may mediate umami taste have recently been identified.

Taste vs. flavour

There is a difference between the two: "flavour is the sensory impression of a food or other substance, and is determined mainly by the chemical senses of taste and smell". So, change the taste; change the flavour. If there exists a umami taste, then it can be used to change the flavour.

  • 9
    Thank you. However, I can't tell the difference. What is the question you want answered?
    – user5582
    Nov 20 '13 at 17:02
  • 2
    @JohnSmithOptional I still think this answers your question.
    – user5582
    Nov 20 '13 at 17:07
  • 2
    @JohnSmithOptional : Part of the point of being skeptic is to be open to be proven wrong. Sometimes the answer you get just isn't the one you are looking for.
    – Christian
    Nov 20 '13 at 20:12
  • 3
    Here's a report on the discovery of umami. I think this speaks to whether it is a "marketing strategy" -- one of its primary uses has been in the invention and application of MSG, which is not something that cooks advertise. blogs.smithsonianmag.com/food/2013/11/…
    – adam.r
    Nov 27 '13 at 5:48
  • 5
    @JohnSmith I feel like the essence of what you're trying to ask is, "is umami really some amazing new-fangled thing?", to which the answer is no, it's been understood by chefs for centuries that ingredients like meat, tomatoes, mushrooms, yeast extracts, cheeses etc can add a satisfyingly savoury taste to a dish. The thing that's relatively new is the name and the understanding of the underlying chemistry. Mar 3 '16 at 9:48

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