The Eater: Understanding the pleasures of Umami

Kenia Fita de Capdevila

Mindthis Magazine introduces The Eater 

We all have to eat.

While restaurants and chefs have gained celebrity cult-like status in the past ten years, and instagramming our lunch has never become more popular, talking about the very real issues of how our food got on our plate, who grew it, and what isn’t being served are probably some of the most important issues of our generation. Some of us have many options when it comes to food, and some of us less so, whether that is due to privilege, location, diet, religion, or lifestyle. This column is dedicated to answering your pressing questions on food from a nutritional, environmental,  and cultural perspective. Our first article breaks down the science of taste including why we are wary of new foods and why kids hate vegetables. 

Thanks for your feedback from around the world, now let’s eat. 

– Alexandra Emanuelli, Lifestyle Editor

Umami ?! 

As omnivores, we have it easier than carnivores or herbivores. When our food sources becomes scarce for one reason or another, we have a wide array of “potential candidates” to take its place. That also means that the risk of consuming something toxic as we try new alternatives is greater. This is why the body works in two ways: first, trying to take in as much energy and nutrients as possible from the food it consumes; and second, trying to minimize the risk as much as it can. It is for this reason that we inherited an innate suspicion called “food neophobia” towards new foods. A clear example is the constant struggle of parents to make their kids try new foods.

I find it particularly interesting how our body ingests, breaks down and absorbs other living beings in order to obtain the nutrients that it needs to keep existing. As Alan Watts beautifully wrote in his essay “Murder in the Kitchen”:

“A living body is not a fixed thing but a flowing event, like a flame or a whirlpool: the shape alone is stable, for the substance is a stream of energy going in at one end and out at the other. We are particular and temporarily identifiable wiggles in a stream that enters us in the form of light, heat, air, water, milk, bread, fruit, beer, beef Stroganoff, caviar and pate de foie gras. It goes out as gas and excrement -and also as semen, babies, talk, politics, commerce, war, poetry, and music.”

The pursuit of calories is one of the main drivers of our bodies but sometimes we don’t realize how much it really affects us. How “pleasurable” or “repellent” we perceive something to be is related to our digestive system. Sweets are “delicious” because our brains associates the presence of sugar with accessible energy. For your body, energy equals life, it tricks you into wanting more by making you perceive the sweet taste as a pleasurable uproar.

On the other hand, bitterness is commonly disliked. In nature many toxins have molecules that your tongue will register as “bitter”. Do you ever wonder why most kids don’t like vegetables? It’s not because they are green or because they are trying to make their parents’ life difficult, but because most vegetables have bitter components and children’s bodies react negatively in order to protect itself, in case the compound is a toxin. As fear makes you run faster when you are in danger, disgust protects you from ingesting something that could harm you. Ironically, most beneficial molecules are also perceived as bitter by our tongues. A clear example? Most antioxidants. That is why medicines have traditionally being associated with a bitter, disgusting taste.

How do you perceive whether food is safe or dangerous to eat? When you put any food in your mouth, the chewing and the saliva will break it down and release different molecules that, depending on their structure, will connect to one of the taste receptors on your tongue. So far, five receptors have been discovered (a fat receptor is currently being researched!): sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. When a molecule fits into a certain receptor, your tongue sends a message to your brain.  For example, if you eat a cake, the sugar molecules it releases will connect to the sweetness receptors in your mouth and will send a message to your brain screaming “sweet”. Umami is a particular case, it doesn’t have a clear flavour description, but can be described generally as “meaty” or “savory”.

So what is so special about umami? That mysterious flavour that in the last few years has been uttered amongst food lovers with shades of holiness and veneration. It can be summed up as that extra depth in food, that wholesome feeling you get when you eat a good stew. These molecules can be found in meat, but also in many other things, like mushrooms, some algae, soy sauce, and parmesan. Remember that different molecules can fit into the same receptor.

Our sense of taste is the way our brain does its first “exploration” of the substances that it is going to intake. And it takes its job very seriously. Did you just put easy energy like white sugar in your mouth? Feel pleasure! Eat more! Is it a bitter ingredient? Take it easy, don’t eat too much, maybe it’s not good for you. Herbivores have more taste buds than us because “they need to be able to tell if a specific plant contains dangerous toxins”[1]. On the other hand, birds have very few taste buds. While you and I have about 10,000 taste buds, a chicken has only about 30.  And cats? Cats don’t taste sweetness!

How many times have you heard, or read, “you are what you eat”? The answer is, most likely, too many. However, the funny part is that although it’s said again and again, most people don’t seem to grasp its deeper meaning. Maybe because it has become so clichéd that unconsciously our minds slide over it, not giving it any further attention. But stop for a second and consider what it really means. What you eat is what our cells will use to keep functioning, self-replicate and repair damaged parts of their structure. To keep existing. That is why what you put in your mouth three times a day has a massive influence on your wellbeing, health and happiness. And how you perceive and taste that food has a gargantuan influence on what you will actually choose to eat every day, most of the time unconsciously. The food industry knows this by heart, which is why they invest so much in researching how the consumer brain reacts to the tiniest changes in their products.

And this is only the beginning. How are sweeteners calorie-free? What happens in your mouth when you eat a chili? Did you know that the microbes in your gut influence your feelings? Have you tried the berry that while being eaten transforms from sour to sweet? Welcome to the amazing world of your intestines, from the beginning to the end! Stay curious, stay hungry.

[1] Dr. Susan Hemsley, a veterinary science professor at the University of Sydney.