The human body produces its own glutamate for a number of essential functions. Glutamate is not only taken in with our food supply but is also synthesized by our bodies.
Glutamate was first identified more than 100 years ago by the German chemist Heinrich Ritthausen, but it was Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University who in 1908 realized for the first time that glutamate gave foods a unique taste and named this taste “Umami,” the fifth basic taste after sweet, salty, sour and bitter.
After isolating glutamate as the source of umami taste from the traditional Japanese kelp (seaweed) broth, Ikeda invented a method to isolate glutamate from wheat protein called gluten. He tested many different glutamate salts such as sodium, calcium, potassium, but the one that was more stable and had clear umami taste was sodium glutamate. This is how the umami seasoning monosodium glutamate (MSG) was born.
Mono meaning one, monosodium glutamate refers to the salt of glutamate that contains only one molecule of sodium. Today, MSG is made by the fermentation of starches such as sugar cane or molasses and does not contain gluten.
Glutamate is also commonly found in many umami rich foods, such as tomatoes, cheese, meats, and many fermented soy and fish sauces. Hence, although the classification of umami as a basic taste is a recent development, fermented fish products, such as nam pla in Thailand and nuoc mum in Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, have been used traditionally to enhance the flavor and add umami to dishes. The level of free glutamate in these fermented fish products is as high as Parmesan cheese.
People have actually been familiar with umami for centuries (without recognizing the term), as a part of the stocks or bouillon in Europe, tomato sauce and cheese in Italy and Greece, fish sauce called “Garum” in ancient Rome, and soy sauce in Southeastern Asian countries.
Today, the chemistry of taste is better understood. Science has established that certain naturally occurring substances can enhance the flavor of food. Salt is known as the classic flavor enhancer. Humans have been adding salt to their food for a long time – first as a preservative, but also because salt could make bitter vegetables and wild game and meats taste better.
As knowledge about taste (and nutrition) increased, other compounds were discovered to be flavor enhancers. One was glutamate, a naturally occurring amino acid that gives foods like seaweed, tomatoes, mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese their distinct savory flavor. When Professor Ikeda isolated pure glutamate and paired it with the salty boost of sodium he created one of the most effective, and safe, flavor enhancers of all time – monosodium glutamate (MSG), now known as umami seasoning. The extensive body of research which exists about glutamate has been reviewed by independent scientists and regulatory authorities around the world — all have found MSG to be safe.
Both sodium and glutamate are needed on a daily basis to survive. This helps explain why humans have evolved to not only taste salty and savory flavors, but to find them to be delicious.