Names like Heinz, Coca Cola, General Mills—or Anheuser-Busch, resound in the customer’s head with fond memories of picnics and good times. This is no accident. The techniques of flavor balancing and optimizing consumer experience are well-known to the major commercial food and beverage producers. It is what they live and die for—or for want of. The premier names of the food and beverage world produce a consumer experience that is round and flavorful in every way. Some people would say in too predictable a way, but that’s mass consumerism for you.
The key here is that their products have balance. What does this mean? In the world of ketchup, it means a product that is sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami in just about exactly the same proportions. Thus, your typical kid can use ketchup as a virtual “flavor eraser” for any unfamiliar foods.
I daresay most people have never heard of umami. Umami was identified in 1908 by Professor Kikunae Ikeda of the Tokyo Imperial University as the taste sensation created by the presence of certain amino acids in a food or beverage.
For centuries it had remained unnamed, but exploited to balance the flavor of many foods. While Umami was being formally described in Japan, the sensational French chef Escoffier was creating innovative recipes that combined all five of the basic tastes too, though he didn’t understand the chemistry of his discovery.
Chemically, combining ribonucleotides and glutamates in food and beverages creates a taste impact that is far more intense than the sum of both of these ingredients, while amplifying the effect of the other four taste sensations as well. Escoffier had discovered Umami.