Why Do We Crave Fermented Foods?

/ / People, Science

Ever wonder why you crave umami, the savory food taste common in fermented foods? You were born with it.

“When you say taste, it’s actually just as much the nose because were actually using all the five senses when we say taste or taste experience,” says Ole Mouritsen, a professor of gastrophysics at Copenhagen University in Denmark. “Taste and particularly odor is very good to invoke memories, good memories and bad memories, because that’s the way its hardwired in the brain. These senders that store our memories are stored to the limbic center, and the processing center for taste and odor are in the same area. You can be brought back to your grandma’s kitchen in no time.”

The five basic tastes are: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory (umami).

He continues: “There are some basic tastes and odors that you prefer. We’re born to like sweet and umami, and we’re born to dislike bitterness and too much sourness. But our preferences change over time.”

Mouritsen and Adam James, founder of fermentation condiments company Rough Rice, spoke with Cooking with Science host Kevin Glidden on the topic of fermentation and taste. Glidden brings researchers and foodies together in an interactive interview for the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture.

Glidden asked why Mouritsen and James think fermented foods played such a big part in other culture’s diets, but not in the Western diet.

James travelled on a Churchill Fellowship-backed fermentation world tour to study ancient and modern fermentation techniques. He pointed out that fermentation has never been part of Western culture.

“If you look at what my biggest influences are – Japan, Korea, China – they eat fermented foods pretty much with every meal, in the form of a pickle or a soy sauce,” James said. “But again, I think that’s something that’s just been part of their culture. Families would sit down and make kimchi together.”

Mouritsen agreed, adding: “If we want to learn about making old-fashioned pickles, we will not ask our mothers, we’ll ask our grandmothers, because the knowledge is lost.”

In the segment, James made a brown rice congee with Tasmanian abalone and fermented condiments. Congee – an Asian rice porridge – dates back 4,700 years, 1,000 years before shoes were invented. James’ cooked his congee using untraditional methods. Congee is usually made using a chicken stock or duck stock as a base, but James made his congee with shitake mushrooms, fresh tomatoes and kelp. Though no meat was used, the result was an umami-tasting flavor.

A new Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute white paper titled “Umami: The Taste that Perplexes” details why umami is a vital food flavor. Umami’s functions and biological mechanisms are not very well understood. “…Unfortunately the way many people have learned about umami is through the stigma of monosodium glutamate (MSG), the prototypical stimulus of umami taste,” writes author Nancy Rawson, the associate director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center.

The umami flavor, though, extends well beyond MSG. It can be found in every day food, like mushrooms, tomatoes and aged cheese. Umami is popular in Asian cultures, where fermented food is high in the glutamate compound. Fermented fish and fish sauce are a common cooking item in South East Asia cuisine, creating “a more balanced taste.” Miso and soy bean paste are used in North Asia, where they flavor food with “a natural and longer lingering taste and mouthfeel.”

Mouritsen said umami is one of the ultimate dining experiences. He adds: “It gives you appetite, when you stick it in your mouth, the saliva starts running. It’s a very good way of getting appetite. We have receptors in the stomach, in the intestinal system, that signals back to the brain that those umami-rich food, and it will eventually tell you to stop. It’s knowledge one could use to make more healthy eating patterns for people.”