Given the inherent link between nourishment and pleasure, flavour is a fundamental decision criteria in our choice of foods. Nowadays, however, the health and sustainability properties of a foodstuff also need to be taken into account. Operators in the food production industry are therefore seeking out naturally flavour-packed ingredients, and are tending to eschew the use of synthetic flavour enhancers .
Brown algae, are particularly well-poised to address these needs: these marine vegetables help boost food flavours, being rich in minerals and essential amino acids responsible for the fifth basic taste: umami.
Algae: a powerhouse of flavour-boosting compounds
Algae are known to contain a wide array of flavours, some of which may be quite pronounced. This has to do with how they are prepared, but also with what is referred to as the fifth basic taste: umami.
This is a Japanese term meaning “savouriness,” and denotes the capacity to make us salivate. In fact, umami alerts the brain to the consumption of proteins, triggering the secretion of saliva and digestive juices and thereby priming the body’s digestive system for the absorption of proteins.
This taste is brought about by amino acids:
- Primarily glutamic acid,
- but also aspartic acid.
These two amino acids play an important role in the use of algae as flavour enhancers, and they are present in higher concentrations in brown algae, particularly kombu. In fact, kombu is the original source of the flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate, which was discovered through its use in Asian cuisine .
In addition to umami flavour molecules, algae also contains other flavour-boosting compounds:
- amino acids such as leucine, glutamine and glycine
- nucleic acids such as inosinate and guanylate, providing a note of sweetness ,
- finally, and no less significantly, mineral components such as chlorides, sodium, potassium and magnesium contribute to the overall balance of flavour (for example, the absence of potassium, sodium or chloride would reduce sweetness, brininess and umami flavours) .
Uses of algae as a flavour enhancer
The most flavourful algae species have been a feature of Japanese cuisine for so long that their use has been perfected, enabling chefs to achieve “umami synergy.”
In fact, umami flavour is vastly enhanced when foods containing glutamic acid are combined with foods containing inosinate or guanylate. Chefs from around the world travel to Japan to study the country’s culinary techniques, including the famous dashi: a broth made with brown algae (rich in glutamate) and fish (rich in inosinate).
Glutamic acid, which is the compound responsible for umami flavour, is released when algae are tenderised and cooked in water at a low temperature. (Moreover, dried algae should not be rinsed before use, as doing so will wash away flavour-packed minerals and amino acids). As such, various algae make perfect ingredients for use in soups: kombu provides intense umami flavour and will enhance the taste of other ingredients, while dulse offers a shellfish-like flavour; wakame is prized for its oyster-like taste and nori for its delicate flavour profile.
In addition to acting as a flavour enhancer, algae can also be substituted for salt in foods, offering notable advantages. Algae are rich in potassium (often more so than in sodium), which allows the user to enjoy salty flavours without incurring the risk of arterial hypertension. Sprinkling a teaspoonful of brown algae flakes or powder over hot dishes or salads is enough to meet our iodine intake needs, and also constitutes an excellent source of minerals and vitamins .
As such, the strong flavour of algae is associated with the various beneficial micronutrients they contain. Appropriate cooking techniques can eliminate many of these flavours, and algae should be combined with other ingredients in order to enhance the umami synergy of the final dish.
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