Most people are aware of the basic tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. They are also becoming more familiar with a fifth one known as “umami,” the savory flavor found in meaty dishes. In addition to being a distinct flavor, umami likewise enhances the four other basic flavors. However, there’s a new taste sensation that is making an impact on the food industry. Known as “kokumi,” it was discovered by scientists at the same company that first identified umami in 1908: Ajinomoto.
A Japanese company specializing in biotechnology and food, Ajinomoto makes frozen foods, seasonings, cooking oils, amino acid products, and sweeteners, in addition to pharmaceuticals. Ajinomoto began isolating kokumi compounds beginning in the 1980s, and the taste sensation has recently begun to gain attention. Kokumi was named as an up-and-coming flavor in Mintel’s 2018 US Flavor Trends study and was ranked No. 6 in Edelman Global Marketing Agency’s 2019 Global Food & Beverage Trends. But what is kokumi and why is it rising to prominence in the food industry now?
What is kokumi?
The phrase kokumi means “rich taste” in Japanese. A taste sensation rather than a distinct flavor in its own right, kokumi enhances the flavor of other foods. For example, it can increase sweetness in products with reduced sugar and produce a rounder flavor, similar to what salt does. In addition, it possesses textural elements that can mimic or boost the mouth-coating sensations caused by food materials that contain fat.
The compounds used to create kokumi are primarily found in ingredients that are common in Japanese cuisine and naturally present in fermented foods, including soy sauce, shrimp paste, and fish sauce, as well as in Western foods such as bread and beer. To extract kokumi compounds, the proteins that create this taste sensation are isolated and made into a powder that can be incorporated into packaged and fresh foods.
Kokumi has a particular interest in food companies looking to create healthier options without compromising taste. Additionally, kokumi could potentially help food manufacturers seeking to replicate the creamy sensation, which has historically been difficult to do. Some food scientists believe that these companies could also potentially reduce fat, MSG, salt, oil, or sugars that are used as flavor additives and replace them with kokumi, making the food healthier while enhancing its flavor.
How does kokumi work?
Both the umami and the kokumi taste sensations are created by triggering receptors on the tongue. Food researchers believe it to be an evolutionary phenomenon that indicates the presence of amino acids and proteins within a particular food. This is similar to how saltiness signifies the presence of minerals, sweetness evinces carbohydrates, and sourness can point toward the presence of acids. Umami has been shown to be associated with the presence of aspartic and glutamic acids, which are types of amino acids. Our brains don’t perceive taste unless the molecules in food attach to the tongue’s taste receptors. When this occurs, signals are sent to the brain that transmit a particular taste or sensation depending on the receptors with which the molecules interact.
Studies on kokumi suggest that the source of the kokumi taste sensation comes from the activation of calcium-sensing receptors. Since kokumi produces no flavor on its own but instead elevates other ones, researchers believe that its use as an additive to enhance the flavor of other foods could have potential for the food industry. As previously mentioned, the health food sector is particularly interested in future uses for kokumi. Restaurants are also intrigued by its potential to enrich the dishes on their menus.
The future of kokumi
While kokumi is becoming more widely embraced, some food industry professionals are concerned that people might dismiss it because it’s extracted in a lab. Many consumers view the use of flavor additives in food as an inherently bad thing, as evidenced by the increasing prevalence of products marketed as “non-MSG” or “additive free.” They are often perceived as unhealthy or unnatural, and the general public continues to push this idea. However, the levels at which additives are present in food are unlikely to present a health risk, according to clinical evidence. Many of the compounds found in additives are also a naturally occurring component in fermented or aged foods and are important to the flavor in many types of food.
Through continued research, food scientists believe that additives such as kokumi in foods could be used to make healthier foods more appetizing and encourage the consumption of such products. For instance, the flavor of the foods eaten by people experiencing malnutrition could be enhanced through the use of additives, and medical foods prescribed to elderly patients could be made tastier. In addition, since some older patients experience decreased sensitivity in their taste buds, an enhanced flavor profile could help to make their food palatable.