I is for Kikunae Ikeda

This is my contribution to ABC Wednesday and for Round Ten I am focusing on people from the past, some famous, others less so.

When I was a boy scout, one of our occasional activities would be the blindfold taste test. Blindfolded and holding our noses, things like sugar, coffee and fruit juice would be placed on our tongue and we had to guess what they were.

The point of the exercise was to demonstrate the importance of sight and smell to the taste experience, and also the way that our tongue has areas that sense the four basic tastes – bitter, sour, salt and sweet.

But it was a waste of our time because our understanding of taste was wrong in two fundamental ways.

First, the idea that different areas of the tongue can only sense one of the four basic tastes. This was based on the ‘tongue map’ published by Harvard psychologist, Edwin Boring, but he had based this on German research published in 1901 which he had mistranslated, missing out the vital word relative sensitivity.

In fact, our taste buds can detect all tastes more or less equally, but the record wasn’t put straight until 1974 when another American scientist, Virginia Collings, revisited the original theory.

And this finally brings me to my ABC Wednesday letter I and Professor Kikunae Ikeda who demonstrated that there are more than four basic tastes.

There are at least five, the fifth being the meaty taste of protein in savoury foods such as bacon, cheese, soy sauce and Marmite. (Vegemite in Australia or Cerovis in Switzerland)

Kikunae Ikeda was a chemist at Tokyo University and he identified the taste that he called Umani in 1908 from a substance which he first derived from seaweed. But this fifth taste wasn’t confirmed until 2000 when researchers discovered protein receptors on the tongue.

The word Umani is derived from ‘umai’, meaning ‘tasty’ in Japanese and its key component is monosodium glutamate. Ikeda shrewdly sold his recipe to the Ajinomoto Company which today controls a third of the global market for synthetic MSG.

Prof Ikeda is recognised as one of Japan’s ten greatest inventors, but his seasoning gift to the world has been unfairly blamed for all sorts of illnesses, even though every investigation has given it a clean bill of health.

The idea that MSG was bad for you started in 1968 with ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ coined by Dr Robert Ho Man Kwok when he saw a number of patients complaining of palpitations and numbness after eating a large Chinese meal.

He blamed MSG, but later research showed that to cause such symptoms would require a level of MSG that would make the food completely inedible.

Glutamate occurs naturally in almost all foodstuff and is particularly high in parmesan cheese and tomato juice. Our own bodies produce 40 grams of the stuff every day and human breast milk contains both glutamate and sugar.

In degrees of threat to health on our dinner tables, salt is by far the most dangerous seasoning.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

7 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 14th March 2012

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • Comrade Pudding 14th March 2012

    Edwin Boring – great surname! Ideal for a university lecturer. Reminds me that in my last school there was a teacher called Pauline Boreham. Boring ’em – that’s the principal goal of all teachers…Why are tastebuds called “buds”? Now it’s spring, I hope mine don’t shoot out little bushes – it would make conversation so difficult.

  • Meryl 14th March 2012

    I had read about this a while back and find it SO fascinating. Johan Lehrer in his book “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” talks about it as well. Great post!

  • Shooting Parrots 14th March 2012

    Thanks all. That’s a very good question Comrade. I have no idea why they are tastebuds. I will try to find out.

  • rhymeswithplague 14th March 2012

    TMI (too much information), Ian. My brain can’t take it all in. In the future, please intersperse your intellectually challenging, fact-packed posts with ones that contain utter nonsense. Oh, and be sure to tell us which are which.

    In Japan, if sushi ring you up on the telephone, do you say “mushi mushi, sushi”???

  • Leslie 14th March 2012

    This is truly fascinating…I know my daughter has to avoid foods with MSG because it is a trigger for her migraines. And I only use “half salt” whenever I need to use it at all. Apparently, there is enough salt in most foods that our bodies don’t really need any extra – too much can cause all sorts of medical problems with high blood pressure being the most common. Thanks for this information.

    abcw team

  • zongrik 15th March 2012

    i love the concept of umami

    if i could have just one wish


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