Umami translates roughly as “pleasant savory taste.” It long was associated with the presence of the abundant and non-essential amino acid glutamate (glutamic acid), along with 5'-ribonucleotides, building blocks of RNA and DNA. Whereas glutamic acid itself contains no sodium, the most common form of glutamate is monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Glutamic acid is found naturally in fish and meat, as well as many vegetables such as mushrooms, tomatoes, potatoes, asparagus, spinach, seaweed and members of the cabbage family. It’s also abundant in many aged and fermented foods, including cheese, soy sauce, miso (fermented bean paste), nutritional yeast and yeast extract.
What put umami squarely on the culinary map is that the savory flavor of umami is a natural when it comes to substituting for the salty taste – that combined with consumer demand for low-salt products. Processors can take advantage of increasing opportunities to do so with the added advantage of boosting overall flavor in savory formulations.
Sodium is an essential nutrient. Insufficient sodium can cause a condition called hyponatremia, resulting in nausea, vomiting, weakness, confusion and other symptoms ranging from mild to life-threatening. The vast majority of sodium in our diet comes from processed foods. Salt serves as a natural barrier to microbes and extends shelflife while providing a much-needed flavor base. For decades, when it came to reducing sodium, the most effective thing consumers could do was either select processed foods with less sodium or unselect processed foods. Taste took a back seat.
This emerging method of salt substitution involves engaging the natural savory flavorings now recognized as umami. Research into the flavor differences between the skin of the tomato and the pulp of the tomato led to the discovery of the new umami component flavors in tomatoes.
The natural outgrowth of this research, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in 2007, was the development of a line of tomato-based salt replacement products. Lycored USA, Orange, N.J., created Sante, derived from a proprietary concentration of the numerous savory components that exist naturally in tomatoes. These concentrates provide umami and kokumi taste characteristics.
Kokumi, similar to umami, is used to describe the more “hearty” flavors of meats and is associated with glutamyl peptides. Sante serves to enhance product flavor, and thus can be utilized to reduce salt content while replacing many artificial flavors and taste enhancers.
Salt of the Earth, Atlit, Israel, recently launched its MSG-free Umami-Essence Sea Salt at the 2014 SIAL international food show in Paris. The ingredient is a propriety liquid formula derived from tomato extract and pure salt from the Red Sea and contains nearly a third less sodium than table salt.
Designed for use on a variety of foods from tomato-based sauces — including pizza, pasta and meat sauces — as well as soups, salad dressings and vinaigrettes, the new salt has proven to be especially effective for seasoning meat. It works particularly well in conjunction with spices used as rubs for such popular formulations as pre-barbequed steaks, roasted meats or in ground beef preparations.
Yeast has long been used to bring meatiness into a formulation without resorting to meat itself. While developed to enhance the same savory formulations as MSG, and in fact inclusive of MSG in most formulations, autolyzed and hydrolyzed yeasts have found places in savory products for years, especially in soups, gravies, stocks and soup bases. They are available as liquids, pastes and dry flakes.
Soy extracts are receiving more attention as vegetarian and vegan products gain a bigger share of the processed foods categories. Kikkoman USA, San Francisco, recently developed a line of low-sodium salt replacers and flavor enhancers derived from soy sauce and other soy products. The pure, natural enhancers in its NFE line come in a range of colors and liquid or dry formats and function as salt replacers in everything from soups and sauces to chips and crackers.