The fifth taste
It is a well known fact that only fresh products have pleasant smell. Freshly ripen fruits and vegetables or fresh meat and fish have strong pleasant aroma and rich flavor.
This is because of a group of chemicals named nucleotides. They stimulate the taste and aroma receptors and tell your brain, the food is fresh.
Some of the nucleotides' chains are broken after cooking or few days after the plant/fruit/vegetable is harvested.
With the current aggressive market, the non-fresh looking or smelling product will never be sold. Various food additives, taste enhancers and preservatives are injected or mixed in the food, so it retains its taste and freshness longer.
In the past, such chemistry was not accessible and the old cooks were experimenting with spices and herbs.
In Japan, a dried sea weed named Kombu was used. It kept the food fresh longer and enhanced its taste.
In the beginning of 20th century, a Japanese professor named Kikunae Ikeda succeeded extracting the secret ingredient from the weed.
It appeared, the power of Kombu to freshen and enhance the taste was hidden in the glutamate acid inside. One of the 20 amino-acids inside every protein chains in every body.
In 1909, professor Ikeda got a patent for producing the salt (sodium) of the glutamate acid - the monosodium glutamate (MSG). It was called
Aji no moto - essence of taste.
The 4 basic senses of taste are salty, sweet, sour and bitter.
The MSG was first called aji no moto, and it was claimed to activate fifth sense of taste called "umami". The glutamate salt quickly became so famous, that the company producing it was named after it. "Ajinomoto".
In the beginning of 21-st century, the receptors responsible for this 5th sense were actually found. Proving umami to be really 5th taste.
Currently the world consumes more than 2 billion tons of MSG yearly. It is the most widespread seasoning in the world after salt and sugar (and even beating them in some areas of Asia).
The intense research in this direction led to the discovery of even more taste enhancers, some of them surpassing the strength of MSG.
Sodium inosinate (E-631) is a food additive for chips and crisps having 10 times the strenght of MSG. And sodium guanilate (E-627) is hundreds of times stronger.
As a rule of thumb, the additives are always used in a synergy. e.g. monosodium glutamate improves the effect of the guanilate.
Also, the MSG improves the taste of meats, while the Inosinate and Guanilate has much broader range of suitable food. Including sweets.
(Good bakers know that the salt makes the sweet taste stronger and they always add a pinch of salt when they bake sweets.)
The ability to increase and guide the sense of taste is also found in other amino-acids. The glycine (E-640) is fizzy drink additive improving the taste and aroma. Introduction of Leucine (E-641)¸ Lysine (E-642) is still small, but they look promising to the food industry and we will probably see them more often on the labels.
There is a product derived from the caramelization of sugars. It is called maltol (E-636).
The maltol is capable of increasing the sweet taste in foods. It is naturally met in beer malt and baked bread crust.
The artificially made ethyl maltol (E-637) however, has six times more potent action.
Both food additives also increase the solid and greasy feeling of yogurts, ice creams and mayo. The food producers also claim that maltols enrich their taste.
There is much controversy about food additives lately. Especially against (or in favor of) the MSG.
Even if the MSG is in the list of safe food additives (Codex Alimentarius), there are many claims for health risks like
- Brain damage,
- Retina damage,
- Hard breathing,
- Muscle weakness etc.
They are all enlisted now as the "China restaurant syndrome".
This syndrome was rigorously opposed by the advocates of MSG.
The MSG (they claim) has many health benefits when taken in small doses.
It improves digestion, improves appetite and increases the production of glutathione in the intestines.
(Glutathione is in fact an important cellular antioxidant, cleaning the body from toxins.)
In favor of the MSG the advocates say "Glutamine is naturally used by the brain, how could it's salt be dangerous?"
Yes. It is the most used neural mediator by the brain, but the quantity is very little. And by increasing it, the oposers of MSG claim that you can actually damage nerves.
(Normally, this is valid for each and every food and spice in the planet.)
Also, they claim MSG is unnatural, while the advocates say "It is extracted from fermented corn, sugar beet and sugar cane. What is so unnatural there?"
Unfortunately, by extracting it from natural products the salt is not L-Glutamate but D-Glutamate, which is not the exact natural compound known by the body. So this controversy goes on and on indefinitely.
Each time you insert some unnatural product in a body, it reacts by breaking and assimilating it or by trying to get rid of it.
This explains why some organisms react badly against MSG.
Traditional cooks are not happy with the taste enhancers and feel that the additives cheat the taste receptors to tell the body the food is actually tasty. (If you can't cook it tasty - don't cook it at all.) And often it happens so - old food product is "improved" to smell and look fresh by masking it with "E"'s.
Also, using food additive which is also a neurotransmitter can make the body get addicted to specific foods and thus - get quickly overweight by abusing them.
Research is done by both sides and the boundaries are set.
If we discard the hype and avoid the overreacting, there are few things known:
- People who react badly to MSG should avoid it.
- Less than 2 grams per day are safe.
- More than 3 grams per day are not.
Unfortunately the exact quantity ingested is not possible to be determined easily.
- Some products hide the fact they have MSG inside by writing some brand names (which actually have it).
- Some products tell they have MSG but don't tell how much exactly.
- Some brands simply lie.
Regarding the other sodium additives (inosinate and guanilate), they still have quite modest share of the market and are used carefully. As with all sodium compounds there is a risk for hypertension sufferers and the introduction in the market is done carefully.
According to the food factories, the "use of food additives is needed in more than 10% of the food world wide and removing them will make impossible the conservation of food" - thus leading to starvation (unused/unsold fresh food may be conserved in a tin can).
Sounds disturbing but next generations may need to adapt to E's or the chemistry gurus must find a way to conserve and improve food without health risks.
Because the alternative is a world starvation?