Science explains why you are addicted to oysters and champagne

Oysters and champagne have been considered a classy, delicious culinary pairing for centuries. Now, after all this time, researchers from the University of Copenhagen have finally figured out why these two items complement each other so perfectly.

So what’s this all about? In short, the study’s findings can be boiled down to one word: umami. 

For those unfamiliar, umami is just another word for savoriness. Savoriness is usually associated with the taste of meat and is considered a big reason why humans enjoy meat so much in the first place.

Many scientists believe humans evolved to crave the umami taste because it indicates that we’re eating food packed with essential protein.

Regarding champagne and oysters, the research team says that the yeast found in champagne and the muscles of oysters combine to create a distinct, savory umami flavor.

You see, champagne and oysters both offer some savoriness alone, but when combined, the two substances create an “umami synergy.” 

“The answer is to be found in the so-called umami taste, which along with sweet and salty, is one of the five basic flavours detectable to human taste buds. Many people associate umami with the flavour of meat. But now, we have discovered that it is also found in both oysters and champagne,” says Professor Ole G. Mouritsen from the Department of Food Science at UCPH in a release.

On a more scientific level, the dead yeast cells found in champagne contain an amino acid known as glutamic acid. The salt of that amino acid (glutamate) then combines with nucleotides produced from the breakdown of oysters’ muscles, to “concurrently bind” with umami receptors found in human taste buds.

“Food and drink pair well when they spark an umami synergy from combinations of glutamate and certain nucleotides. Champagne and oysters create a notably synergistic effect that greatly enhances the taste of the champagne. Furthermore, champagne contributes to the overall impression with, for example, its acidity and bubbles. That explains the harmony of these two foods,” explains Ph.D. student Charlotte Vinther Schmidt, the study’s lead author.

Interestingly, these findings are relevant far beyond just the realm of shellfish and expensive alcohol. The study’s authors say that umami is responsible for any number of other classic food pairings, such as bacon and eggs, ham and cheese, and various meat & tomato combinations. Savoriness isn’t a sensation that’s discussed all that often, but it’s quietly been dictating humanity’s eating habits for a long, long time.

If meat is on one end of the umami spectrum, then vegetables are undoubtedly on the opposite side. Vegetables are notoriously devoid of savory flavors, which is partially why so many people have such a hard time enjoying some broccoli or brussels sprouts. With this in mind, the study’s authors say adding some more umami to various vegetables may be a great way to encourage healthier eating patterns. 

“Understanding the umami principle is particularly important because it can help get us to eat more vegetables. By being cognizant of umami synergy, one can make any vegetable tasty. And, it is my firm belief that if we want more people to eat more vegetables, we need to deal with the fact that greens lack umami,” professor Mouritsen says.

With a quieter-than-normal New Years’ Eve quickly approaching, enjoying some champagne and oysters may be the perfect way to bid 2020 adieu and welcome in an assuredly brighter 2021 at home. 

Of course, there are tons of different oysters and champagnes to choose from. What’s your best bet for a truly savory, umami experience? Researchers suggest Danish Limfjord oysters paired with a bottle of older vintage champagne.

“One gets the most bang for the buck and best taste experience by tracking down flat Limfjord oysters and an unfortunately slightly more expensive bottle of older champagne. Older vintage champagnes have more dead yeast cells, which provide more umami. And Limfjord oysters contain large quantities of the substances that give umami synergy. Still, one shouldn’t hesitate from purchasing the invasive Pacific oysters that are harvested in the same area as our native Limfjord species. They too can share an umami synergy with champagne, as the study shows,” professor Mouritsen concludes.

The full study can be found here, published in Scientific Reports.