Some people claim they “crave” protein in their food to feel satisfied… others say it is really the fat that they are after. Do we really crave protein? Can we even “taste” protein in itself?
I used to think that we do not.. until we got on the topic of UMAMI in class. In 1908 Kikunae Ikeda identified the unique taste component of kelp (seaweed) as the salt of glutamic acid (most abundant amino acid in the diet). He used umami(=”savoury deliciousness”) to describe it, which to a Westerner translates to meaty, broth-like, savoury. Other umami substances are0 inosinate and guanylate
Glutamate is found in both animal and plant foods; in almost all protein-containing foods (fish, meat, poultry, eggs, cheese), many vegetables (ripe tomatoes, cabbage, maize, green asparagus) and for humans & chimps, in mother’s milk. In addition, glutamate is produced by our bodies and binds with other amino acids to form structural proteins.
The taste of glutamate (on its own + in combination with IMP5 ribonucleotide) is thought to represent the taste of protein (evidence is still scarce). Glutamate has a special quality of enhancing certain flavor characteristics of food (sugar, salt, fat). * Umami, by the way, is tasted by humans and dogs (rats can’t seem to taste it as much). Currently, umami is recognized as the 5th basic taste (others: salt, sour, bitter, sweet)
Wait a second…Glutamate!?
If you’re at all into health, the word “glutamate” has probably evoked some negative connotations. Or- monosodium glutamate- the evil MSG. While umami exists naturally, MSG is a additive (extracted glutamate mixed with salt) which has become quite unpopular in the 90s due to health concerns (for health issues, please google MSG; that’s a whole other topic). If you use MSG, you taste umami, but umami does not contain MSG (MSG on its own does not taste good but enhances flavor of other foods). I suppose the original idea was to add umami-tasting MSG to healthy but often disliked foods such as bitter vegetables to increase their intake…of course now you find MSG in many processed nutritionally poor products (it’s probably not too great to increase our liking of those foods).
In conclusion….can we crave protein specifically? Indeed it seems so. The study I reference at the bottom argues that the taste of MSG maybe one of the compounds that represents the taste of dietary protein…this “meaty” umami taste appears to predict the liking and preference for high protein foods.
In fact, I now realize why seaweed, especially dulce flakes were quite popular with my raw vegan friends. We just loved seaweed– it seemed to fill us up when added to raw vegetable dishes. I suppose the umami taste, which is associated with meatiness and richness, might impose the feeling of satisfaction with one’s meal. Note: This website has a fantastic post about umami & being vegan!: http://www.theveganrd.com/2012/04/is-umami-a-secret-ingredient-of-vegan-activism.html
Opinion: While clinical studies do not support the negative health claims of MSG, we could always be weary of natural compounds being extracted and concentrated in unnatural amounts. So far, it seems that any time a human tries to improve on nature in a lab, the results tend to be disappointing. Want to experience more umami- add sun-dried tomatoes/miso/organic soy sauce to your dish instead (mmm) ;D
*Luscombe-Marsh, N. D., Smeets, A. J. P. G., & Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S. (2008). Taste sensitivity for monosodium glutamate and an increased liking of dietary protein. The British journal of nutrition, 99(4), 904–8. doi:10.1017/S000711450788295X