What Is Kokumi And Where Can You Find It?

Umami still raises questions, even though it has officially been accepted as a fifth taste in recent years, behind sour, sweet, bitter, and salty. Ever since, new notions of taste are continuously being explored, redefining our experience with food. Kokumi is one of many expanded theories about taste. It has no flavor of its own, notes Ajinomoto, the group that first isolated umami to create a seasoning. The Ajinomoto Group has since experimented with the concept of kokumi, discovering that it enhances characteristics of umami, salt, and sweetness in other foods. The name kokumi derives from the words "rich taste" in Japanese, an attempt to qualify the sensation.

Researchers with the Ajinomoto Group managed to determine the chain of amino acids responsible for the sensation of kokumi, noticing that calcium receptors are activated by kokumi foods. As a result of the activation, the signals to the brain regarding textural mouthfeel, complexity, and duration of flavors are magnified. The Ajinomoto Group was then able to isolate the compound and create a powder that can be added to food, increasing its richness, roundness, and savoriness.

How do you add kokumi?

A heightened experience of kokumi can be created by adding the substance to foods. However, it is also naturally present especially in protein-rich foods, which food scientist Laura Kliman hypothesizes might have evolutionary benefits according to Food Dive. As well, it is naturally found in fermented food such as alcohol, soy sauce, fish sauce, and shrimp paste (via Ajinomoto). It can develop over time, and a long-simmering stew or aged cheese will have greater kokumi than the same food tasted early on in its preparation, explains Ajinomoto.

Kokumi remains elusive because its action is not owed to a single molecule and instead depends on the interaction between various receptors and peptides, notes Food Dive. A wider spread introduction of kokumi into the food market needs to be done carefully to avoid criticism and negative press like what occurred with MSG, the isolated sensation of umami.

The future of kokumi

Nevertheless, many applications of kokumi are in the works since it manages to heighten and modify other tastes, improving food balance and mouthfeel. Science Meets Food suggests kokumi could be used to enhance flavor in nutritious foods given to malnourished people. Likewise, the outlet points out that it can help make food more appetizing for elderly people who have diminished taste sensation. 

Ajinomoto also performed some tests by adding kokumi substances to reduced-fat peanut butter. Their results demonstrated that compared to the control, tasters experienced a longer aftertaste, thicker texture, and the mouthfeel characteristics of buttery foods. Since kokumi enhances tastes without having to add more sugar, salt, or fat, it could certainly be incorporated into diet foods to make them more satisfying.

While there is still research and experimentation to be done, the fact that kokumi can modify other tastes and sensations will surely be valuable.