Being born in a country where half of the world vegetarian population resides I always wondered what draws more than 3 quarter of world population towards meat. I found the answer partly, while trying to understand my own cheese addiction.
Have you ever wondered what makes aged cheeses a favorite of so many people? Partly it’s the fat found in it which give a rich creamy texture, but the story doesn’t end there.
To rationalize the love of cheese I decided to dissect my taste buds (not literally!!) that are stimulated by eating cheese. How does cheese taste??? Even though it is slightly salty, a bit sour to me, no combination of salt and lemon juice could mimic the taste of cheese. So, there must be more to this…..hmmm!!
Many scientists were wondering the same until 1908, when a Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda found that an amino acid glutamate was responsible for distinct flavor of meat, sea food, aged cheese, ripe tomato and mushroom. The fifth taste after salty, sweet, sour and bitter cannot be produced by mixing any of the primary tastes. This fifth taste was named ‘umami’ meaning delicious in Japanese. The umami taste is produced by an amino acid (building blocks of protein) called glutamate.
The power of glutamate to stimulate taste buds was soon commercialized as mono sodium glutamate or MSG. To many of us glutamate or umami is also known as Ajinomoto. Ajinomoto is a Japanese food company that is producing and marketing MSG since 1909. After that many restaurants and food industry started using unnatural amount of MSG which could pose some health risk. Just like eating too much salt, having too much MSG is not good for health.
So, where does cheese get its umami….?? Breaking down protein in a protein-rich food product would result in free amino acid including glutamate. This is precisely what happens during ageing of cheese, where the milk protein is broken down in to amino acids by microbe making aged cheese very umami.
In year 2000 a group of scientist at University of Miami discovered the taste bud that is specifically activated by umami. This finally strengthened position of umami as a primary taste with its own unique receptor on human tongue.
To find more about umami visit umami information center.