Soy sauce is not only one of the world’s oldest spices, it’s also one of the most popular – we consume at least eight million tons of it every year! But what gives soy sauce its complex salty, umami flavor that makes it so delicious?
Researchers have published new work in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistryexposing the proteins and compounds that give the sauce its distinct flavor.
Soy sauce originated in China over 2,500 years ago and is made by fermenting a combination of salt, enzymes, and mashed soybeans. However, a complete profile of the flavors has not yet been produced. Decoding the flavors of this fermented food is particularly challenging because of the complex processes involved in making it, including the microbial breakdown of compounds over time.
A team of scientists conducted a full assessment of the taste profile of soy sauce and identified 34 key flavorings — a chemical that produces a taste sensation by activating taste receptor cells (TRCs) and taste-related pathways of the nervous system.
They then combined these compounds to try to mimic the taste of soy sauce. But a panel of 27 reviewers found that this recreation didn’t taste quite right — something was missing.
The team hypothesized that small proteins could be missing from the batch and used a senso-proteomics approach to identify 14 umami, kokumi and salt-enhancing peptides, present at concentrations between 166-939 mol/L.
The addition of these to their artificial soy sauce of now over 50 flavors produced a condiment with similar complexity, flavor intensities and “mouthfulness” as the real deal. Some of the salt-boosting proteins gave a salty sensation, previously only caused by table salt and other minerals. These salt-flavored peptides could potentially serve as an herbal alternative to table salt that could be better for your heart.
This better understanding of why soy sauce tastes the way it does can help fine-tune growing or production processes to ensure consistent quality and also boost certain flavors.
Qamariya Nasrullah has a PhD in evolutionary development from Monash University and an Honors degree in paleontology from Flinders University.
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