Savory flavor was first described in 1908, though there are records of the use of this flavor back in the 1800s, even though the chef’s in question weren’t quite sure what was responsible for the taste. By 1985, Umami (as it is called today) was first recognized at a symposium in Hawaii. While the flavor certainly isn’t new, our understanding of it is.
Savory flavor comes from nucleotides and glutamate. Glutamate may sound familiar – it’s a key component of monosodium glutamate or MSG. MSG is used as a food additive because it rounds out and balances the other flavors in a very complimentary fashion. You may recall that salt is often used in a similar manner. Savory flavor gives that special something to what you’re eating, and though you may not know it, you are certainly capable of craving it.
But usually we just call it meat.
Meat is mostly protein. And protein is pretty important. It would make sense then that the body would have a fairly reliable mechanism for telling you when you need more of it. After all, protein is in your DNA. Also your hormones, signaling pathways, enzymes, blood, bones… everywhere. It gets under your skin. And in your hair and nails. Protein is what makes it all possible.
Protein is made up of amino acids, hooked up into chains (we call ‘em peptides). When you get a bunch of them together (polypeptide) they start to form funny shapes. They swirl (alpha helix) and flatten out into sheets (beta sheets, specifically). These shapes are very specific, and can only happen when you have the right amino acids hooked up together and in the right order. Sickle cell anemia is actually a protein disorder. Hemoglobin is made up of 147 amino acids. The sixth in this chain is usually a glutamate. In this disease, however, it’s a valine. And that’s all it takes.
In human nutrition we only care about 20 of these amino acids. We can make about half of them (some of them you may not be able to make enough of if you need extra for some reason, such as when you’re sick). The rest need to come from your food. But fear not – animal products have everything you need and plants have most of them. But the good news is different plants have different pieces, so if you don’t eat meat, but you have a healthy balance of different veggies, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes (beans), you’ll get everything you need.
There are recommendations for protein out there, some are from the USDA, others are from various body building websites, but if there’s one thing to take from this, it’s that eating protein won’t make your muscles big. But it will make your immune system (and just about everything else) stronger, and provide your body with the ingredients it needs to for cell growth, repair and maintenance. And the cells are happy, every body’s happy.
If you’re really curious about your protein needs, I’d direct you for general recommendations to the RDAs at http://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/everyone/basics/protein.html. For more specific recommendations, you can meet with a dietitian to determine what your needs are. But one thing is certain – with balanced intake you can be sure you’re getting enough of everything you need, protein included.
- Les, MS RD LD