Savory Ingredients Meet Demand for New Flavors

By Frances Katz, Senior Technical Editor

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The basis of savory or umami is in meaty tastes that primarily round out other flavors and taste sensations. Photo courtesy of McCormick.

Flavor manufacturers and food processors believe savory roughly describes the fabled fifth flavor: not salty, sour, sweet, nor bitter. Umami, its Asian synonym, has been understood in China and Japan for more than a millennium, but it's a relative newcomer to this continent. There is no simple definition, but it's generally understood that the basis of savory or umami is in meaty tastes that primarily round out other flavors and taste sensations.

The Merriam-Webster's Dictionary describes savory as "pleasing to the taste and smell." There is general agreement that savory flavors are often found in cooked foods, often the result of a reducing sugar (like glucose or maltose) and amino acid subjected to heat and/or acid. Some savory flavors are produced via the Maillard reaction, which produces toasted, cooked and sautéed notes.

That leaves a lot of latitude (and longitude), a lot of directions in which processors and their ingredient suppliers can take savory. "The most noticeable trend is for Far East and Indian-type flavors," says Simon Poppledorf, vice president of RandD for flavors at Bell Flavors and Fragrances, (website), Northfield, Ill. "Curry, a blend of spices, is showing up in all kinds of foods. It's aromatic, flavored with spices including cardamom and cinnamon, and using capsicums of all types so that it's getting hotter all of the time. It's showing up in snacks, yogurt dips, and other cultured dairy products as well as sauces, main dishes, and snacks." It's all savory, he says.

Vegetable flavors offer savory flavor notes, too. Vegetables such as mushrooms, tomato, asparagus, onion, and garlic, all of which contain large amounts of glutamic acid or other specific amino acids, are new, popular sources for savory flavor. Mushroom, especially shitake mushrooms, contribute a lot of savory flavor, which is why they are so popular with chefs as flavors in rice dishes and others.

Flavor and Fragrance Specialties (, Mahwah, N.J., offers these flavors as well as cabbage and broccoli flavors (possibly building on the sulfur ingredients of those cruciform vegetables) to provide savory notes. As fruits and vegetables gain popularity, they become more important as a source of savory flavor. A number of firms offer toasted, fried, sautéed and otherwise altered garlic and onion flavors that offer an easy route to making foods tastier.

A savory history

While the umami flavor/sensation has been understood by the Chinese for more than 1,000 years, apparently the first identification of a protein-based savory flavor was made by the Japanese in the early 1900s. Kikunae Ikeda separated the crystals of monosodium glutamate from seaweed broth. The flavor, described by Ikeda as like that of tomatoes or cheese, was described as umami, which approximately translates to "delicious."


Savory products have very complex flavor systems, so temperature control during processing can be extremely important. If flavors are changed, the effect of temperature should be monitored.

Some of these new flavors are protected by very complicated systems. While certain flavors are designed to be very effective in a heat-processed or frozen product, the same flavor could have a totally different effect in a refrigerated or dry, shelf-stable product.

Hot flavors, especially concentrated ones, must be very carefully measured as small errors can make the final product inedible. And they should be weighed and handled while wearing protective clothing and goggles. An accidental rub of the eye can be very painful and quite dangerous.

S. Yamaguchi further defined the flavor in an article published around 1987, describing the impact of a solution of 0.005 percent inosine 5'monophosphate (IMP). It was described as a "fifth taste dimension" that imparted savoriness, deliciousness or succulence to foods. Combinations of inosine 5' monophosphate (IMP) and guanosine 5'-monophosphate (GMP) and monosodium glutamate (MSG) are described in the literature as "beefy," "oak-mushroom" and "sweet-salty."

A key component of naturally occurring savory flavor is glutamic acid, which is also a major component of proteins, with great variations in concentration. One of the earliest uses of the protein-reaction flavors was in hydrolyzed vegetable protein, with its high content of glutamic acid, in the early 1960s.

Bound glutamate is a major source of umami flavors, and the amount of glutamate often is similar to the savory flavor impact of those foods. For example, parmesan cheese has 9,847 mg of glutamic acid per 100 g of the cheese, chicken has 3,309 mg per 100 g and cows milk offers 800+ mg per 100 g.

While the science of producing savory flavors is not new, the variety of flavors preferred by the public does change with flavor and food preferences. These flavor preferences are impacted by Americans' desire for something different, fueled by a well-traveled generation that has been influenced by Thai, Vietnamese, Caribbean and other cuisines, as well as the impact of the growing Latino population, which is being increasingly Americanized. So savory foods today are generally hotter and more complex than in the past.

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