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Cooking up flavor — without fats or MSG

The downsides of monosodium glutamate and fats are leading scientists to look for new flavor enhancers. Phil Lempert has details.

The Japanese have a word for it — “umami,” or the fifth flavor.

It’s that indescribable yet distinctive full-mouth flavor that results when the balance of spices, food ingredients and cooking methods combine to make a superb “fifth” taste — a taste that goes beyond those of the “flavor quadrant” of sweet, sour, bitter and salty.

It’s what every chef or home cook seeks when creating a recipe or preparing a dish. To anyone who dines primarily on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, it means adding nothing beyond some spices and a little salt, the original flavor “enhancer.” But for the rest of us it is a more complicated mix of ingredients, which unfortunately tend to carry some undesirable side effects.

For instance, what many chefs and food manufacturers have used for years to achieve “umami” is monosodium glutamate (MSG), a substance derived from seaweed that goes beyond salt to bond all flavors into one taste that supersedes the individual ingredients. In addition, cooks have always relied on fats, animal and vegetable, to transmit flavors around the mouth and add a pleasing texture to food.

The problem is that many people are allergic to MSG, and fats, of course, can be damaging in many ways. (In addition, overuse of salt can have serious health consequences, particularly related to blood pressure.) As a result, food scientists have been scrambling to develop substitutes. The results to date have been two-fold: better use of fats as a natural flavor carrier, and the introduction of "novel” or replicated enzymes to do the same job.

Fat and flavorAlmost since man started cooking, chefs have known that fat, whether animal or vegetable, acts as a carrier of flavors. It can also add texture and weight to food products. Especially in manufactured foods, fat’s primary role is to carry flavors from our tongue to our brain, where memories of how foods taste connect with the reality of the current mouthful.

But now that fat has been pointed out as a health hazard for heart disease and obesity — and trans-fats in particular have been relegated to “fat prison” — food scientists are trying to develop other, non-harmful, flavor and fragrance enhancers. The goal is to create foods that not only taste good but that taste the way consumers expect them to. These manufacturers are looking for consistency, plus elements that make foods popular: texture, aftertaste, fragrance, and the “go with” quality that makes pairing foods with beverages or other foods such a challenge for any menu.

Enzymes are the new MSGOne of the latest additives is natural enzymes that contribute to an overall positive reaction to a product’s flavor and taste. The newest of these is Accentuase-g, developed by Diversa Corporation from a fungus that grows on cocoa pods and beans in the Amazon. Accentuase-g and other enzymes can be enhancers of flavor, known as flavor “potentiators” that contribute to the flavor of the products.

How enhancers workPotentiators, such as MSG, interact with taste receptors — in the mouth and nose — making receptor sites more “available” to flavor compounds. In addition, they interact with proteins at the receptor sites to improve the environment for taste receptor stimulation. A third concept is that potentiators strengthen the synaptic signal from the receptor site to the brain.

Another theory, according to Tilak Nagadowithana, director of research for Red Star Specialty Products in Milwaukee, posits that the interaction between the enhancer, the receptor and the flavoring material itself creates a bonding between the elements.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent