Savvy snack makers know that flavor isn’t the only attribute that impacts a consumer’s enjoyment of a particular treat. In addition to taste, different textures and sensations also can make or break a snacking experience. Haya Anabtawi, a food scientist with Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition North America, connected with Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery to talk about kokumi, a sensation that has no taste of its own but can have a positive impact on snack eating.

Jenni Spinner: Could you please tell me a little about you and your work at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition?

Haya Anabtawi: My work primarily deals with the science of taste in savory product development, with a focus on seasonings. We create customized blends using AHN’s solutions for ingredient optimization, improving nutrition, taste, and texture. Some of my focus is on sodium reduction in sauces and seasonings for snacks. At AHN, we create solutions to improve taste and texture that help meet consumer demands with both flavor and nutrition in mind. 

JS: Please tell us about umami, and how that “essence of deliciousness” can be harnessed in various foods.

HA: Umami is one of the five basic tastes, alongside sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Umami is responsible for richness and deeper savory flavor profiles, meaning it can elevate flavors in snacks, soups, sweets, and more, creating a more satisfying and intriguing experience for the palate. 

Dr. Ikeda’s discovery of glutamate as the source of umami (a word which he coined that is based on the Japanese word for deliciousness) led to the founding of the Ajinomoto Company through the invention of monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG is often connected to Asian cuisines, but as a basic taste, umami is not limited to one cuisine. It’s present in a lot of the foods we eat such as tomatoes, mushrooms, or parmesan cheese. Food scientists like me harness umami to improve the flavor of foods.

MSG, as the sodium salt of glutamate, is the purest way to add umami. Elevating umami can enhance flavor, which also makes it a tool for reducing sodium. While our history started with MSG, our portfolio includes a variety of solutions that leverage our umami expertise, including Savorboost yeasts and yeast extracts, our SaltAnswer line for sodium reduction, and authentic Asian ingredients. 

JS: Then, what is kokumi? Please tell us about that sensation, and how Ajinomoto is leading the discovery and application.

HA: Kokumi is a taste sensation and unlike umami, has no taste on its own. It can be described as a sense of richness, heartiness, and overall fullness in foods, providing flavor cohesion and complexity. It’s what makes an aged cheese or wine taste more complex. Ajinomoto discovered the receptors responsible for the kokumi sensation and has isolated compounds that elicit this response, beginning first with glutathione, naturally present in garlic and onion. 

Further research has revealed that there are multiple compounds that contribute to kokumi.  Our understanding of kokumi can translate directly to benefits for the consumer. In the food world, we are inundated with headlines around innovation in products for better sensory experiences, strained wallets, or nutrition awareness, but kokumi is an evergreen tool that can help meet demands as trends change, supporting cost, nutrition, and flavor goals in nearly any application.

JS: With trends shifting quickly and consumers demanding innovation, how do umami and kokumi contribute to meeting demands?

HA: Umami and kokumi can be used together to create rich, satisfying flavors without resorting to excessive salt or fat, providing healthier options that don’t compromise taste. This is particularly valuable for the current consumer who has health and value top of mind. Inflation and COVID have impacted the way consumers purchase food. More of their paycheck goes to food but they care more about health too. In turn, they are more considerate and want to know more about products and benefits. Consumers are looking to learn more about the products they buy, and turning to brands and retailers to educate them. We’re seeing this directly in younger consumers, where educating on MSG’s safety and benefits increases positive perceptions of the ingredient.

Umami and kokumi solutions can be integrated into soups, sauces, snacks, and bakery items to provide enhanced flavor profiles and a more satisfying eating experience. The addition of umami and kokumi can also reduce the need for artificial flavor enhancers and additives.

JS: The past year revealed growth in snacking, focusing specifically on how Gen Z and millennials are reshaping the category by replacing meals with snacks. Could you talk a little about the changes you’ve observed?

HA: Our research reveals snacking plays a bigger role for these consumers. They have on-the-go lifestyles and are cooking at home less. They are more impulsive shoppers and to them, snacks are convenient, provide a quick energy boost, and satisfy cravings. Their connectivity with the world via social media also contributes to diverse interest in global flavors, new ingredients, and elevating comfort foods, maintaining nutrition through snacks higher in protein or lower in sodium. This cohort is also known for its value-driven purchasing. As a result, we see them prioritizing authenticity, both in the values of the brands they purchase and the flavor profiles of the products they eat. Our MSG perception research has been particularly insightful to understand this point, showing that not only do consumers expect brands to advocate for and educate on MSG’s history, but retailers and restaurants holding unacceptable ingredient lists do not increase consumer likelihood to shop there. 

JS: Do you have any advice on how kokumi can help snack and bakery producers flavor and formulate products that deliver on those desires? What types of new products can kokumi be incorporated in?

HA: The increasing impulsivity of consumer purchasing sheds light on the importance of indulgence in the marketplace. While indulgence is typically associated with a sweet dessert or a treat, we now see consumers reaching for rich, satisfying snacks with novel flavors or ingredients that evoke a sense of indulgence without compromising health. Our sensory data reveals that kokumi helps provide the attributes that satisfy those demands. Kokumi can be used in savory snacks like chips or popcorn to enhance the mouthfeel and create a more substantial taste experience. In bakery products, kokumi can add a sense of richness to both sweet and savory baked goods, allowing for reduced fat and sugar content without sacrificing flavor.

JS: Do you have anything you’d like to add?

HA: Ultimately, the use of umami and kokumi presents a significant opportunity for food scientists to innovate and meet evolving consumer demands. At AHN, we continue to explore these elements to help product developers create products that are not only delicious but also align with broader health and sustainability goals. 

Related: Breaking Bread: How a Century-old Tool is Reducing Sodium Today (webinar)