Seniors who struggle to maintain a regular appetite and keep their weight up may see dietary improvements if they start cooking with umami flavors, a new study finds. The so-called “fifth taste, which accompanies salty, sweet, sour, and bitter, could get older adults eating more due to increased salivation.

The new study comes as part of a bundle of new research into taste, which was recently published in the open-access journal Flavour as “The Science of Taste.” The research sought to blend insights from food science, social science, natural and life sciences, and the arts to create “a composite mosaic of our current understanding of taste.” For seniors who lack the sensitivity to certain tastes, the new findings could extend far past simple delights of the palate and into overall health benefits.

"In general, our understanding of taste is inferior to our knowledge of the other human senses,” said Ole Mouritsen, professor of biophysics at the University of Southern Denmark, in a statement. Mouritsen served as a guest editor on the new report, which put into words what transpired at an international symposium last August. “An understanding and description of our sensory perception of food requires input from many different scientific disciplines.”

As umami research is concerned, the data seem to overturn much of the conventional wisdom. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), for instance, isn’t nearly the bad guy people make it out to be. Glutamate naturally occurs in our bodies, and the liver is highly adept at processing out any extra we may consume. It’s for this reason MSG was the focus of the new study, which involved 44 elderly patients with some form of taste disorder. With its heart, full-bodied flavor, MSG promoted salivary flow and got people hungry and eating again.  

“Sensitivity to umami taste seems to contribute to good overall health in elderly people,” the researchers wrote.

This isn’t the first study to find umami can help boost wellness. In July of last year, University of Sussex researchers found umami flavors can actually achieve the opposite effect — appetite reduction — in obese subjects. People who ate an umami-rich soup before lunch ate less of their meal yet reported similar rates of satisfaction and fullness.

Umami is distinct from other flavors because it stands out as the only one related to savory. It’s found most often in soups, broths, meat, and other protein-centric dishes. Some food scientists argue there may even be a sixth sensation (and countless more), called “kokumi.”

The Japanese describe it as less a taste than a supplement to other tastes, such as the mouthfeel afforded by garlic, onions, and scallops. A separate study in the symposium found the addition of a kokumi substance added depth and thickness to an all-natural peanut butter, suggesting traditionally bland low-fat foods could be improved in taste without sacrificing nutrition.

Source: Mouritsen O, The science of taste. Flavour. 2015.