Umami, the proven fifth taste, has enjoyed a fascinating and stellar history since its discovery in 1908. One of the high points in umami’s 110-year timeline is the World Umami Forum, which took place just last week in New York City, September 20-21.
This inaugural conference attracted food science experts, renowned researchers, food historians, journalists, registered dietitians, and culinary professionals from around the world. Participants left the meeting with a deeper understanding and appreciation of umami and its essential role in cuisine, and learned about the extensive science that refutes urban myths about monosodium glutamate (aka MSG or “umami seasoning”).
Takaaki Nishii, CEO and President of Ajinomoto Co., Inc. (Aji), opened up the forum by stating, “As the world celebrates the 110th anniversary of the discovery of umami, Ajinomoto Co., Inc. – the world’s first and leading manufacturer of MSG – is excited to continue to bring delicious flavor to global cuisines. MSG, the purest form of umami, was introduced to the U.S. market in 1917 with a vision of a new way to bring taste to everyone’s kitchen.”
Aji’s mission, said Mr. Nishii, is to “improve nutrition through delicious meals, and science shows MSG is an important ingredient for this purpose.”
The master of ceremonies was Andrew Zimmern (@andrewzimmern), the popular chef and television personality. Chef Zimmern observed that when it comes to controversial food topics (e.g., Are eggs linked to heart disease?, Do artificial sweeteners stimulate a craving for sweets?, Can you over-consume protein?, etc.) too often the conversation doesn’t start with open minds. And he emphasized that based on his experience someone’s emotions or feelings can be a barricade to facts, that people often have contempt for something before they’ve even investigated it.
The World Umami Forum featured thought-stimulating topics and an impressive lineup of presenters, who are recognized experts in their respective fields (full list of presenters).
Chef Zimmern explained how umami’s origin is Japanese but its “craveability” and use in cooking around the world is universal. (See world map of umami-rich foods.)
Several presenters observed that the human preference for umami taste begins in infancy, probably due to the high levels of glutamate, an amino acid, in mother’s milk. They also noted that the glutamate from MSG seasoning and the glutamate occurring naturally in foods such as tomatoes and parmesan cheese is exactly the same. The body treats glutamate in the same way no matter what its source.
Presenters also discussed the role of umami in nutrition, focusing on the latest research evaluating the benefits of umami for appetite control and even calorie reduction, as well as the role of MSG in a reduced-sodium diet.
Umami Culinary Competition
During the conference, the United States of Umami Culinary Competition, a contest among top culinary students, was in full swing, captured in live streaming video from the Institute of Culinary Education. Six finalists prepared a signature umami dish, which was judged for technique and taste. Nick Lee, a student chef at the International Culinary Center, won the grand prize – an all-expenses-paid culinary trip to Japan – with his Butter Poached Abalone, served with roasted mushroom risotto and oven dried tomatoes (recipe).
From the MSGdish Team we can wholeheartedly say that the World Umami Forum was an inspirational and educational umami love-fest… and we can’t wait for next year’s event!
Here are a few materials of interest, distributed at the World Umami Forum, and suitable for downloading:
- 5 Facts to Know About Umami (pdf)
- Characteristics of Umami Taste (pdf)
- Umami: The Science and Lore of Healthy Eating (published by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics)
- Monosodium Glutamate: Beyond the Controversy (pdf)
- Glutamate: The Purest Taste of Umami (pdf)
- FAQs about MSG
- Umami Culture Around the World
- Umami-Rich Recipes