Boosting umami flavour to get us to love green food
With an advanced degree in food science in her back pocket, Charlotte Vinther Schmidt has secured two dream jobs as an independent food entrepreneur and a researcher at the University of Copenhagen. We interviewed the young postdoc and creator of the knowledge-based culinary universe Umami Pairing about her educational and career journey within food science.
Charlotte Vinther Schmidt has a Bachelor of Science in Food Science and Technology , a Master of Science in Food Science and Technology, and a PhD in Food Chemistry and Gastrophysics with a focus on umami taste. Today, she uses her knowledge in the challenge to make us want to eat greener.
How did you decide you wanted to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Food Science?
“I have always loved to cook, while being interested in health and nutrition – including what happens with the food when being cooked as well as in the body when you eat it – so a bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Nutrition was the obvious choice. I expected to specialise in nutrition and health, but as my studies progressed, I discovered that you could also do an incredible number of interesting things choosing the technology path,” says Charlotte Vinther Schmidt.
An engineering internship confirmed study choice
“I did my engineering internship at Toms Group A/S and saw that food science technology was the right choice for me. Here my task was to come up with a proposal for a new product developed from the side streams that occur if something goes wrong in production, for example if the chocolate clumps together and the physical appearance is damaged. This does not mean that the raw materials are bad, but the product must be discarded and typically used for animal feed.
I worked on the project for half a year, and the challenge was that repeated handling of the product gave rise to chocolate blooming (white crystals on the surface of the chocolate). I worked to develop a coating technique where you process the confectionary in something that looks like a cement drum mixer. However, this gave rise to completely new problems, as the centre of a dragée-coated product must be relatively hard for it to withstand the dragée coating technique. Otherwise, it will all clump together into one cohesive mass.
I continued to work on the challenge and eventually found a possible solution and was allowed to run a large-scale production trial with a ton of product using the factory’s production equipment. I was quite nervous, as I had created the recipe using small-scale pilot plant equipment, but it worked out fine and it was a fantastic experience to help develop a solution that could utilise resources that were at best downgraded to animal feed. I have always been interested in optimising processes and minimising waste. My grandmother was a home economics teacher and was very keen to use everything and avoid throwing out food.”
Charlotte stayed at Toms Group A/S for another two years as the company offered her a student job.
“We think we crave meat, but it is in fact the umami taste that we desire, and this is important to know in relation to the green transition of our food system. We can use science-based knowledge about umami to boost the taste of the plant-based food, so that we want to eat it„
Why is it fun to work scientifically with food?
“The nice thing is that science explains what happens when you cook. If something goes wrong, you can use science to determine what the problem was – typically it can be explained by a chemical or physical process in the food. Once identified, you can simply avoid a lot of wasted time the next time you go into the kitchen. It is tedious to work in the kitchen when things fail – you are wasting your time plus a lot of ingredients potentially go to waste.
This is also the perspective I have in my Umami Pairing food universe, where I share tips and tricks for cooking based on food science (link to the website - in Danish). The overall aim is to make the food – especially the plant-based food – taste even better by boosting the umami taste. We are not going to stop eating meat and/or start eating more plant-based foods just because it is the best thing to do for the environment or our health. There is also the whole element of deliciousness and enjoyment. We enjoy the food if we succeed in pairing and preparing it so that it tastes fantastic. And here the taste, especially the umami taste, is key to the deliciousness and enjoyment of a meal.
With that said, other food properties that we experience with our other senses besides the taste sense are of course also important in achieving a delicious meal – for example, it can be the sound when something crunches or the visual appearance of the meal. Food must taste good to be eaten – and that includes the green and sustainable diet. This is important to be aware of, since food is only sustainable the moment it is eaten. I am working to ensure that there is a focus on the taste, and here the umami taste holds the magic needed to bring out the best in a meal.
I also want to help dispel the food myths that exist and are very persistent – for example, that mayonnaise separates if you don’t stir it the same direction, which is not true.”
The Umamipairing.com website was started based on the knowledge that Charlotte Vinther Schmidt has accumulated during her studies at the University of Copenhagen.
Working with the building blocks of food
After the internship at Toms Group A/S and the completion of her bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Technology, Charlotte decided to study for a master’s degree in Food Science with an individual specialisation.
“After completing my bachelor’s degree, I definitely wanted to continue studying Food Science at the University of Copenhagen. I know some fellow students who stopped after the bachelor’s degree, but I felt that the MSc programme was a great opportunity to learn even more practical and exciting subjects. I simultaneously had my student job in the quality and innovations department at Toms Group A/S, which meant that I could often apply what I learned at the University directly in practical examples.”
What do you think is special about an advanced education in food science?
“You can help create something that can change people’s daily lives, since food is an inevitable part of our lives. It is fun to be able to apply theoretical knowledge to something so practical and concrete that you can taste it! The good thing about the general specialisation in the MSc in Food Science and Technology is that you have great freedom of choice in selecting the courses that you think are most interesting. For example, I had been captivated by upcycling side streams in the food industry and therefore chose some courses that complemented that interest. My focus was generally oriented towards food chemistry and innovation. I love being creative and ‘tying up loose ends’, and via the innovation part you get to work with the development to new products and new processes.”
PhD with oysters and champagne
After her master’s degree, Charlotte Vinther Schmidt was hired as a research assistant for a large research and dissemination project, Taste for Life, and at the same time was given the opportunity to do a PhD.
“When you do a PhD, you have to work independently and manage what you do from day to day. It is a challenge because you are largely responsible for your own learning and tasks, while also having to comply with occasional deliveries (courses, articles), keep stakeholders updated and guide students, which all in all I believe to be a brilliant steppingstone to starting your own business. You learn how to initiate something, how to do project management, how to lead and delegate the work and how to finish the task – skills that are also needed in a start-up company. My PhD project was about umami and ended up describing the umami potential of sustainable, underutilised marine sources of protein (Danish squid and invasive oysters) and fermented food and beverages as well as the umami synergy taste effect between oysters and champagne (link to article in Aktuel Naturvidenskab/Current Science – in Danish).
I was captivated by the science of umami and especially umami taste synergy (the umami taste effects when combining foods rich in glutamate with foods rich in nucleotides), because being able to convey how to combine foods in a way that phenomenally boosts the good taste can be a game changer in the green transition of our eating habits. We think we crave meat, but it is the umami taste that we desire, and this can be achieved by pairing and preparing food in just the right way. We can use science-based knowledge of umami to boost the taste of plant-based dishes, so that we feel much more inclined to eat them.
In addition to boosting deliciousness, umami taste also has many other benefits. It can bring more of a salty and sweet taste to food, so that we can reduce salt and sugar levels, while lessening the bitter taste of, for example, broccoli and other vegetables. In addition, umami can stimulate the appetite of the sick and the elderly, but conversely also has a satiety-simulating effect when we have eaten, which is quite interesting from a health perspective. Through research, we also know that umami can enhance the aromatic effect we get from food – so it’s a bit of a panacea.
Many people view cooking as a barrier – especially if you have to make something new, for example prepare a meal with less meat and more greens. If you haven’t done it before, it is difficult to find time for new dishes in a busy life. Here I would like to help provide inspiration to food that is delicious, nutritious, and sustainable.”
As a postdoc at the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH FOOD), Charlotte Vinther Schmidt investigates the eating quality of cephalopods (squid, octopus and cuttlefish) – find out more about the cephalopod project in the TV Series De Unge Forskere & Maden (The Young Researchers & Food) originally broadcasted at TV2 Lorry. At 06.30, you can learn what umami synergy is.
“There is great interaction in working both as a postdoc at the University of Copenhagen and with Umami Pairing. I can use knowledge about new research on the Umami Pairing website and Instagram and pass it directly on to people who might not otherwise have access to that knowledge – all based both on something I research myself as well as research I read about in scientific journals that has been done by other researchers. Meanwhile, I can also use the knowledge I acquire about communication via Umami Pairing at the university. It gives great credibility both ways and supports my goal of communicating natural science in the context of supporting the green transition,” says Charlotte Vinther Schmidt.
Postdoc at the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH FOOD) Charlotte Vinther Schmidt, email@example.com
Communications Officer at UCPH FOOD Lene Hundborg Koss, firstname.lastname@example.org