An equation for flexitarian flavour that brings veggies to life

Wednesday, 01 May, 2024

An equation for flexitarian flavour that brings veggies to life

Many people know fish sauce from Asian cuisines, where it is used to endow dishes with umami. But Europe too once had a tradition of using a fish sauce called garum to impart extra flavour in nearly all ancient Greek and Roman dishes.

If we are to realise a green transition of our eating habits with diets that are far more plant-based, researchers believe it might be a good idea to liven up our vegetable dishes with umami flavours — just like the ancient Greeks did.

According to Ole G Mouritsen, professor emeritus of gastrophysics and culinary food innovation at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Science, vegetables just don’t taste all that good on their own because they lack the umami that we’ve been evolutionarily encoded to crave. However, he believes the ‘blue food’ of the sea could provide a solution as it not only abounds with protein, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats, but also in much-coveted umami.

“We overlook the most readily available, and in many cases, most sustainable food sources with umami taste in them — namely fish, seaweed, shellfish, molluscs and other seafood. If the right species are chosen, we can use them as climate- and environmentally-friendly protein sources that are also effective umami flavourants for vegetables,” Mouritsen said.

Mouritsen believes that flexitarian diets are a more viable option than today’s focus on replicating meat products using plants.

“I think we need to be more flexitarian. We need to get used to having a lot more vegetables and much less animal-derived fare on our plates. But in terms of taste, nothing should be absent. Therefore, my vision is that we add something from the animal kingdom that really boosts taste, so that we can make do with very small amounts — but enough to provide flavours that vegetables can’t,” Mouritsen said.

In a new scientific research article published in International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science, Mouritsen uses a mathematical equation to help calculate the power of umami in a wide range of seafoods and demonstrate their great taste potential.

“Umami can be plugged into a formula because we know exactly how the taste receptors in our taste buds pick up on umami at the molecular level. There is a synergistic effect when two substances, glutamate and nucleotides, are present in a food at the same time. Glutamate imparts the basic umami taste, which is then enhanced many times over by nucleotides. This synergy is reflected in the equation,” said Mouritsen, whose background is in theoretical physics.

The equation looks like this:

EUC = u + u × ΣN γ(N)v(N)

EUC stands for Equivalent Umami Concentration, which is the umami concentration in a food expressed in mg/100 g.

The list of seafoods with large concentrations of umami is long. It includes everything from fish like cod and mackerel, to shellfish and molluscs like shrimp and octopus, to the roe of Alaska pollock and blue mussel, to various types of seaweed and on to processed seafood products like anchovy paste and fish sauce.

Illustration of some of the marine food items described in the scientific paper as umami-rich blue food (photo courtesy by Jonas Drotner Mouritsen).

“There are many possibilities. And while some people will probably debate the formula’s accuracy, it doesn’t matter. Whether the umami concentration in shrimp, for example, is 9000 or 13,000 mg/100 g is not critical, as each is much greater than 30 mg/100 g, which is the taste threshold for umami,” Mouritsen said.

Only a few drops or grams of blue foods are usually needed to elevate vegetable dishes to something that satisfies our inherited umami craving.

Top Image credit: Lee

Related Articles

Rice being explored as a 'clean label' thickener

Polyphenols and proteins from pigmented waxy rice are being explored as a natural alternative to...

Whey to go: upcycling dairy waste into a beverage

Arla Foods Ingredients has launched a fermented beverage concept that demonstrates how dairies...

Arla Foods Ingredients to cut carbon emissions with heat pump technology

The ingredients manufacturer is investing in an electric heat pump facility at its primary...

  • All content Copyright © 2024 Westwick-Farrow Pty Ltd