A matter of taste: After umami, meet kokumi

5 Jun 2019

Consumers have become increasingly aware of the savoury umami taste as the fifth basic taste over the past few years, and recently researchers have suggested a sixth; known as kokumi, it is a taste impression that enhances flavours by triggering calcium receptors on the tongue.

Discovered by researchers at the Japanese company Ajinomoto, kokumi enhances sweet, salty and umami flavours, meaning that it could be used to improve not only the flavour, but also the health profile of foods and drinks. Although it has no flavour in itself, when combined with other flavours, researchers have described kokumi as creating a more intense, balanced and mouth-coating sensation.

A matter of taste: After umami, meet kokumi
Kokumi could mimic the creaminess or fats

For food and drink companies, kokumi-containing compounds could be used to help improve satisfaction and flavour in reduced salt or reduced sugar products, and may help mimic the creamy sensation of butter or other fats in the mouth in reduced fat products – a perception that is notoriously hard to replicate. Researchers are still investigating which foods contain kokumi, but they include fish sauce, yeast, soy sauce, shrimp paste, cheese and beer.

Ajinomoto has recently released two yeast extracts that deliver kokumi, which it says provide a flavour complexity, continuity and roundness in low sodium savoury products like snacks, sauces, soups and gravies, but could also impact the flavour of baked goods and confectionery. One recent prototype demonstrated how such an extract could be used to add creaminess to a non-dairy spread.

It is not the first time that researchers have suggested there may be more basic tastes than the five widely recognised in humans: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami.

Over the past few years, emerging evidence has suggested that fat could also be recognised as a taste primary, and researchers have proposed taste receptors and pathways for fatty taste perception. However, the jury is still out on whether people can really taste fat, or whether we simply feel its creamy texture. Either way, some – like Switzerland-based Natural Taste Solutions – have already recognised the potential of fat taste receptors to help produce more satisfying reduced fat foods. It has developed an ingredient to stimulate these receptors to mimic the taste and aroma of fat.
Other candidates vying to be recognised as the sixth basic taste include coolness, piquance, metallicity and carbon dioxide. Whether they are ever added to the official list of basic tastes remains to be seen, but in the meantime, greater understanding of how different compounds affect food appreciation will continue to impact new product development – healthy or not.