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The flavorful and economical potential of kokumi

Kokumi is primed to take center stage as the next trend in taste, but there’s still so much about it that’s left to uncover. We know that kokumi works synergistically with umami, our fifth taste, to enhance flavor, but what is kokumi, exactly? Is it a concept, an effect, a flavor sensation, or all of the above? Perhaps it would be simpler to begin with what kokumi is not. It isn’t a basic taste like sweet, sour, salty, bitter, or umami.

Instead, kokumi acts as an amplifying agent, enriching the overall taste experience by adding depth, richness, and complexity to foods. Derived from the Japanese words  “koku” which translates to “rich” and “mi” for “taste,” kokumi works by stimulating specific receptors on the tongue to increase the intensity of salt, sweet, umami and other specific flavors. Kokumi also has an effect on the perceived texture and mouthfeel of food. Although we’re only beginning to understand how it can be applied, people already leverage kokumi in all kinds of cooking. Sarah Corwin, Ph.D., LDN, a Senior Principal Food Scientist at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition North America, Inc. (AHN) describes kokumi’s impact this way:

“Imagine making a pot of chili that you’ve only cooked for thirty minutes. The broth is thin, the flavors are separate, and the cohesion hasn’t developed. Now, compare that to chili you’ve simmered for hours, put in the fridge, and reheated. It has transformed into a more delicious, cohesive, rich and flavorful dish. That’s the power of adding kokumi.”

Foods like garlic and onion inherently include compounds that impart kokumi, so it’s not surprising these foods have been used for generations in countless dishes. In the 1980s, Ajinomoto began unraveling the mysteries of kokumi which ultimately led to the development of innovative yeast-based food ingredients that can bring the benefits of kokumi to a wide range of foods.  

Kokumi offers addition by subtraction

Kokumi’s capability to amplify existing ingredients can provide flavor-building, nutritional and economic advantages. For example, kokumi can strengthen the flavor of specific spices or ingredients, like cheese, requiring less of the ingredient to be used in a formula. Macaroni and cheese sauce is a prime example. Kokumi can help enhance the flavor profile of the sauce, maintaining the rich, cheesy taste and perceived texture while decreasing the amount of cheese in the sauce. It can also be paired with a less expensive cheese to replicate flavor notes or qualities of a more expensive, aged cheese. The end result is more cost-effective products that don’t compromise on taste or quality. By achieving the same perception of flavor while using less of the ingredient or a more economical alternative, food formulators can realize cost savings, and address sourcing challenges associated with certain ingredients.

Kokumi provides authenticity in condiments and sauces

Just one of the many exciting applications for kokumi comes in the world of sauces and condiments. This category has been surging in popularity in recent years, tied to top food trends including complex heat, fusion flavors, and “regional” global cuisine. Sauces and condiments can be a powerful vehicle for providing authentic flavor for different cuisines across the world, adding depth, flavor, and character to dishes in subtle yet essential ways across the globe.

In fact, condiments can make or break the cultural authenticity of a dish, a growing demand among consumers. A 2023 study by Datassential found that 76% of consumers think that supermarkets should offer more authentically flavored global prepared foods. Sauces also have the remarkable ability to incorporate small elements of various cultures into one dish, allowing consumers to experiment with flavors and global cuisine easily and within their comfort zones. Consumers seek condiments that not only taste delicious but also genuinely represent their cultural origins, from sriracha to verde to Turkish ayran.

Because traditional recipes that deliver kokumi are often prepared through time-intensive processes, authentic flavors in condiments can be challenging to recreate. By incorporating yeast-based ingredient solutions that leverage kokumi compounds to elevate existing flavors, the result is a condiment or sauce that features a more complex taste with a more efficient production process and potential for optimized costs.

Kokumi possibilities in sweet dairy applications

Research on kokumi in savory applications has led to the discovery of kokumi’s impact on all tastes, uncovering potential in dairy applications. In sweet dairy applications like ice cream and yogurt, kokumi improves flavor, elevates mouthfeel, and promotes overall flavor cohesiveness.

In the realm of low-fat ice cream, yogurt, and other soft-serve products, kokumi can help improve the perceived mouthfeel. Elevating the creamy goodness of low-fat products can make each scoop a truly indulgent experience.  

Transforming plant-based products with kokumi

One of the challenges in creating plant-based products has been replicating the savory flavors and singular textures associated with meat and dairy products. Kokumi can help improve the palatability of these foods. In plant-based imitation meats, kokumi can help impart the umami-rich taste and juicy mouthfeel of meat, from plant-based burgers and sausages to even seafood, making products more appealing to consumers. Similarly, in plant-based dairy, kokumi can add depth and creaminess to almond milk, impart a cheesy umami to vegan cheese, or improve the mouthfeel of plant-based yogurt.

As the exploration of kokumi continues to evolve, its potential to redefine the way we perceive and experience flavor in food is truly limitless. AHN continues to lead the way in researching how kokumi works, and developing ingredients like the diverse line of Savorboost™ yeast and yeast extracts that deliver its flavor-building characteristics. To learn the latest about available kokumi solutions and potential applications, contact the expert team at Ajinomoto Health and Nutrition.

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