A taste of MSG

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 November, 2008, 12:00am

Textbooks tell us humans only experience four tastes - sweet, sour, bitter and salty - and that everything we taste is just a combination of them.

Yet, a group of Form Two students from CCC Heep Woh College tried out a taste called umami in a cooking workshop last Friday.

Umami - which is from the Japanese for 'delicious' - was actually first identified as a taste in 1908 by a Japanese scientist named Ikeda Kikunae.

His discovery led to the manufacture of MSG, or monosodium glutamate. But it wasn't until nearly a century later that the 'fifth taste' was scientifically accepted worldwide.

Scientifically speaking, umami is glutamates, natural amino acids found in soy sauce, cheese, meats and other protein-heavy foods. Glutamates, however, have developed a bad reputation due to MSG - seen by many people as a 'chemical'.

Even though it has been linked to obesity, MSG has been found to be safe, and now Japanese seasoning company Ajinomoto - the company that first patented MSG in 1909 - and the Hong Kong Council of Early Childhood Education and Services (Ceces) have joined hands to promote it as way of encouraging healthier eating in Hong Kong schools.

'Umami Journey in Schools' will tour 12 participating secondary schools this month, educating students about tastes, while highlighting umami and the proper use of MSG to make healthier and tastier menus. At CCC Heep Woh College, budding young chefs tried their hands at making pizza.

Leslie Chan, a registered dietitian who works with Ceces, said the campaign was a good idea because a little MSG can go a long way to transforming boring vegetables into tasty treats.

'This gives children more choice in having a balanced diet,' he said.

But, you might think, aren't we talking about MSG?

'There are many misconceptions about MSG,' said Mr Chan. 'Some irresponsible restaurants use the flavouring to cover up bad ingredients and have ruined its reputation. Also people may find the taste too good to be natural.'

But don't rush out to stock up on instant noodles.

Mr Chan said instant noodles contain MSG, but there are at least 15 other chemicals in the seasoning packs. He also stressed MSG is simply a taste enhancer and the real issue in food is the quality - especially the freshness - of the ingredients.