The scope of “better-for-you” offerings is broadening, which consistently challenges food developers to identify new functional solutions to meet the evolving demands for products free of artificial additives, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG).
In line with the global clean label trend, many consumers have been vocal about switching out these ingredients to avoid potentially adverse effects. However, some industry stakeholders believe not all artificial additives should be equally scrutinized.
Dr. Joe Formanek, director of New Product Development at Ajinomoto Health and Nutrition North America, shares this sentiment.
Speaking to FoodIngredientsFirst, he reports that “umami” as a flavor trend is still driving demand for MSG, which can be leveraged to reduce salt in tandem with industry’s latest generation of “kokumi” ingredients.
“There is a consumer trend against artificial anything in better-for-you foods,” he remarks. “In fact, even ingredients labeled as flavors, either artificial or natural, are being questioned.”
“Unfortunately, fear and not facts have driven the narrative on certain food ingredients.”
Spice of umami
Umami was discovered more than a century ago, but the taste has been trending over the years and is still gathering momentum.
MSG, which is pure umami, was first discovered and developed by the Ajinomoto Group in 1908. It has one-third the amount of sodium as table salt and can be used to reduce salt by 30 percent, and in some cases up to 50 percent.
“However, it took until the turn of the 21st century to understand that the sensation that MSG delivers is actually the newly discovered fifth taste – umami,” details Formanek. “Beyond MSG, other ingredients that deliver umami include monopotassium glutamate (MPG), which brings strong umami characteristics to savory foods without the addition of sodium.
“Taste is king, and there are instances where there could be latitude to use approved artificial flavors depending on the application and finished product,” he argues.
“There is no question that the food industry has a responsibility to help educate consumers that just because something is artificial, it can be perfectly safe for consumption.”
Umami is gaining more traction year by year in both food service as well as in retail, notes Formanek. “Menu penetration for the term ‘umami’ is at 1.1 percent, growing 43 percent compared to four years ago. There is also a 1.8 percent penetration in the Fast Casual menu.”
“The highest growth is seen in ‘non-ethnic’ style restaurants, cuisines such as Americana, Bistro, etc.”
New product development with the on-label positioning “umami” has grown at a CAGR of 18.7 percent since 2016, he adds. “We also see considerable growth in new product development using umami in the plant-based meat substitute segment.”
The concept of kokumi is a more recent development, having been discovered by Ajinomoto scientists in the 1980’s. It is another Japanese concept, known as the “sixth taste,” denoting “heartiness” or “mouthfullness” that brings depth and richness.
Products that deliver kokumi character are of particular importance in both the sodium reduction and taste arena due to the ability of kokumi to round the edges and fill out the flavor of products.
“Kokumi is starting to gain traction in foodservice where the wonderful richness and complexity that kokumi delivers comes into play in savory applications like sauces, marinades and savory seasonings. However the term has not yet penetrated menus,” explains Formanek.
Ajinomoto scientists are working to understand these concepts better and discover new ingredients for umami and kokumi delivery.
“Importantly, the understanding of kokumi has progressed dramatically over the past decade, with a better understanding of ingredients that can deliver kokumi to products outside of the traditional savory arena – such as confectionaries like chocolate or vanilla to deliver overall character enhancement,” says Formanek.
Ajinomoto has developed an extensive line of kokumi delivery products based both on flavor and yeast technologies that are applicable for a wide range of savory and even confectionary applications. All in all, these work to enhance the sodium character present in the reduced salt application.