Food Labels, Controversy, and MSG

Heather says:

Yesterday’s conversation on high fructose corn syrup is a nice segue today’s look at food labeling and MSG.

While I understand that cost and profits are the bottom line for many companies, I refuse to take the cynical view that all companies are out to hurt people. I believe there may be some misguided motives and perhaps some bad science or bad information that is influencing some decisions, but I still have some faith in people. Just call me Pollyana. . .

I obviously needed to state this more clearly. I do not believe companies have the health of the consumer as their top priority. I do believe that profits are the bottom line. What I should have said is I do not believe most individuals set out to directly cause harm to customers, but we all know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Many decisions are based solely on profit or on the assumption that all consumers have the resources and education to make informed and healthy decisions. I majored in Biochemistry and biology and this morning I spent three hours wading through guidelines and regulations. The average consumer does NOT dedicate this kind of research when it comes to nutrition, they rely on habit, availability, media influence, and their budget.

I spent a long time just last week and today educating myself on the FDA labeling guidelines.  If you would like to familiarize yourself with the standards, please visit: http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/default.htm

These documents are not written in legalese and can help clear up a lot of mis-information.

The legalese versions can be found at the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 Food and Drugs.

The concerns I hear most frequently involve MSG being included in a catch-all term such as spices. Don’t worry, we will get to hydrolyzed vegetable protein in a moment.

Can MSG be declared a spice? No.

(2) The term spice means any aromatic vegetable substance in the whole, broken, or ground form, except for those substances which have been traditionally regarded as foods, such as onions, garlic and celery; whose significant function in food is seasoning rather than nutritional; that is true to name; and from which no portion of any volatile oil or other flavoring principle has been removed. Spices include the spices listed in §182.10 and part 184 of this chapter, such as the following:

Allspice, Anise, Basil, Bay leaves, Caraway seed, Cardamon, Celery seed, Chervil, Cinnamon, Cloves, Coriander, Cumin seed, Dill seed, Fennel seed, Fenugreek, Ginger, Horseradish, Mace, Marjoram, Mustard flour, Nutmeg, Oregano, Paprika, Parsley, Pepper, black; Pepper, white; Pepper, red; Rosemary, Saffron, Sage, Savory, Star aniseed, Tarragon, Thyme, Turmeric.

Paprika, turmeric, and saffron or other spices which are also colors, shall be declared as “spice and coloring” unless declared by their common or usual name.

Can Monosodium Glutamate as a single ingredient be called anything other than MSG? No.

(5) Any monosodium glutamate used as an ingredient in food shall be declared by its common or usual name “monosodium glutamate.”

There seems to be a lot of concern about MSG aka monosodium glutamate as a cloaked or disguised additive to food.

Here is where it gets interesting, Monosodium Glutamate is part of set of substances that fall under the heading GRAS or generally recognized as safe. There is a searchable database that is updated regularly. The interesting point here is that MSG is noted with a designation of 2 which states:

There is no evidence in the available information on [substance] that demonstrates a hazard to the public when it is used at levels that are now current and in the manner now practiced. However, it is not possible to determine, without additional data, whether a significant increase in consumption would constitute a dietary hazard.

With this standard, MSG can be part of another ingredient and not mentioned, most commonly hydrolyzed vegetable protein, a substance in which MSG can comprise about 20%. -I’m searching for the primary source of this fact and will add it once I verify it. I only have secondary sources at the moment.

With this in mind it is very important for those who feel they are sensitive to MSG to be on the lookout for the other names that can imply the presence of MSG and these are:

  • Autolyzed yeast
  • Calcium caseinate
  • Gelatin
  • Glutamate
  • Glutamic acid
  • Hydrolyzed corn gluten
  • Hydrolyzed protein
  • Monopotassium glutamate
  • Monosodium glutamate
  • Natrium glutamate
  • Sodium caseinate
  • Textured protein
  • Yeast extract,  Yeast food, Yeast Nutrient

I want to be very clear, it is not MSG specifically that concerns me. It is adding a substance to nutritionally inferior foods to make them palatable and cause consumers to seek out more. By consuming food with artificially inflated taste, our bodies are not given the nutrition they expect, which triggers a cycle of craving and over-consumption of calories.

We derive satisfaction from the presence of good flavor and naturally seek it out. Think of it like this, mushrooms have glutamates, and they add wonderful flavor to food; but when we use mushrooms as an ingredient, we haven’t stripped out all of the other parts of the mushroom. It’s when foods are distilled to their basic chemical makeup just so these enhancers can be utilized as an additive that we have a problem.

What are your thoughts?

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Comments

  1. This is the driving principle behind how nutritionists are being trained right now, at least in my school. I'm on an Exercise Science path, but I still have to take 5 or 6 nutrition courses, and the over-arcing theme is "Food First." There's a lot of stress put on the interplay between the millions of phytochemicals and comp0ounds in food, and trying to single-source everything – i.e. supplementation or food additives – is not nutritionally (or scientifically!) sound practice. Except for whey protein isolate. That is apparently kick-ass for the human body. :)

    Anyway…the idea that something can be nutritionally empty yet full of flavor gets a lot of play in most of my classes, and the emphasis is truly on a return to basics. It may take a couple of generations to reverse modern mass manufacturing trends in food, but if we the consumers demand it, it will happen.

    As for food companies not being evil? Yeah. Some of them are. They do things that they _know_ will harm the populace, and they do it _solely_ to make more money. I have nothing against profits. In fact I have something against people who would prevent any industry from being profitable. But there's profit and there's evil, and food companies have slipped right on down that slope over the last few decades.

    /end soapbox :)

    SO glad to see this debate happening, BTW. The more people know about what goes into their bodies the better we will all be for it.
    My recent post stark23x: Good Lost tonight. Set & Horus are about to blow up the spot, yo#lost

  2. This is the driving principle behind how nutritionists are being trained right now, at least in my school. I'm on an Exercise Science path, but I still have to take 5 or 6 nutrition courses, and the over-arcing theme is "Food First." There's a lot of stress put on the interplay between the millions of phytochemicals and comp0ounds in food, and trying to single-source everything – i.e. supplementation or food additives – is not nutritionally (or scientifically!) sound practice. Except for whey protein isolate. That is apparently kick-ass for the human body. :)

    Anyway…the idea that something can be nutritionally empty yet full of flavor gets a lot of play in most of my classes, and the emphasis is truly on a return to basics. It may take a couple of generations to reverse modern mass manufacturing trends in food, but if we the consumers demand it, it will happen.

    As for food companies not being evil? Yeah. Some of them are. They do things that they _know_ will harm the populace, and they do it _solely_ to make more money. I have nothing against profits. In fact I have something against people who would prevent any industry from being profitable. But there's profit and there's evil, and food companies have slipped right on down that slope over the last few decades.

    /end soapbox :)

    SO glad to see this debate happening, BTW. The more people know about what goes into their bodies the better we will all be for it.
    My recent post stark23x: Good Lost tonight. Set & Horus are about to blow up the spot, yo#lost

  3. Thanks for this info. I didn't know this about adding MSG to other hard-to-identify ingredients. Hard for me, anyway. And I do actually feel that it is "evil" to add these types of things to our food. I also feel that loading our food with pesticides is evil. I wouldn't hand my family wholesome food and then pour on a box of poison, and I don't want companies to do that either. That's extreme, but that's how I picture it in my mind. Would these people really feed their own babies this way? Nobody should be eating dangerous food. Okay, I'm going overboard, but it seriously bugs me. I'd love to see similar posts on pesticides and on GMO's. The latter is a topic I don't know enough about.

  4. I love the heck out of this post Heather, particularly when it comes to the section about how food companies are faking out our systems with the tastes that we crave minus the nutritional content. Just throws me right back in to Pollan's book about all of the horrible things going on with food systems right now.

    As to your mention of evil. I am right with Jim on that, once they have the knowledge that what they are doing is in fact harmful they have a choice to make, and some of them have made that choice.

    [ K ]

  5. This is something I'm very passionate about. Just this Sunday I jumped up on a soapbox during a wedding shower, when someone started talking about salt. When I realized I was ranting, I apologized and climbed down. *redface*

    I, too, tend to look for the good in people, but a food processing company is not people. It's an organization formed for one purpose – to make money. There may be alot of good people who work in a big company, but the whole bureaucracy-decision-making process is driven by the bottom line. The desire of some to do good gets drowned in the quest for profit. Oh great, now I sound anti-capitalist. I'm not. I think we need LESS government regulation, not more. People need to educate themselves – there is more information readily available to more people than ever before in history.

    I'm not saying they're working from a desire to hurt people. But, neither are they working from a desire to sell the healthiest products they can make. If that were the case, most of the "food products" on store shelves would never exist.

  6. While I want to agree with your thoughts that companies are not "evil" as Kevin correctly points out, the vast majority of corporations have slid down that slope a long time ago… and now it is more of a lawyers game than it is about nutrition or doing right by the customers.

    To be honest, I hadn't though much about MSG as I thought that was a "thing of the past" and that we had already moved passed this one… It scares the heck out of me that it doesn't.

    But on every other front, just look at the games corporations play. "Hasn't been proven that rBGH is harful to humans" (but there IS correlation, and it is bad for the cows… but hey… more milk per cow is profit). Really… if it has to do with Monsanto… it is evil. Growth Hormones for Cows, Genetically Modified Seeds that bring "fresh" vegetables into the realm of potentially dangerous, and like yesterday's discussion of HFCS, not only will they mask their evil ways, they actually have the nerve to try and "promote it"

    Uniform Labeling Laws – which sounds good in name, but is really mean to prevent States from putting their own warning labels on certain foods.

    Serving Sizes that are asinine.

    Finally, a primary source that states that Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein and being able to be used without listing it as MSG can be found at : http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Help/FAQs_Flavorings/ind

  7. Editing to clarify my thoughts on evil, companies, and people.

  8. Another issue that I didn't comment on is that if you go to a regular grocery store, it is EXTREMELY difficult to buy only natural foods, not even trying for organic. It's stunning to notice how many products that do not need to be full of chemicals, are, in fact full of them. For instance, just a silly example is canned parmesan cheese. I buy mine at Trader Joe's that has the ingredients of something like: cheese, salt, maybe one more ingredient. I look on the Kraft or other similar item at the mainstream grocery store, and there's a list of twenty chemicals.

  9. Heather,
    This is great info. Thank you for searching through all of the guidelines and boiling it down. Yet another reason to get our diets down to the nuts and bolts, and cook from scratch as generations before have done. A whole lot easier to know exactly what we are eating.
    My recent post A Must for Blog Following

  10. Thanks so much for these posts. I had no idea about adding msg to other things so they can squeeze them in without stating they are int here. It is useful to know more about what's really going on. I live in a rural area with a lot of farming. What's insane is with all this "food" growing around me (literally) it's nearly impossible to find natural/whole food around here. It's kind of ironic. I'd love some posts on ideas for all natural snacks. It's the one area we really struggle with processed foods.
    My recent post Living the Law of Attraction and Parenting With It Too!

  11. Thanks for posting all the ways MSG is disguised in the foods we eat. I haven't seen a clear breakdown like that before. This stuff is so dangerous. It is killing our brain cells and causing us to be addicted to food that is so damaging to our bodies.

  12. To paraphrase MK Fisher, we are fed best by those who love us. And Alton Brown would add that Kraft Foods does not love us!

    You know I was just chatting today with the manager of a small, local food coop and their sales are up over last year despite the economy and we speculated that it might be that people are shifting their trust from large food corporations to small grocery stores and coops where they have more confidence that what is offered is safe/healthy/nutritious. Her staff have several research projects ongoing to look into the ingredients in the processed foods they do offer and find out their sources. Once that info is gathered the food will be labeled at the shelf so shoppers can make an informed decision.

  13. Nancy Cox says:

    Thank you for pointing out the tightrope we walk between budget and healthy. I would love to see more devoted to this topic. Milk I can get without rBST fairly cheap, but I have to drive further for it. I pay more for butter without rBST, almost double. If I want meat from a trusted source, that is also almost double. If I buy meat in the supermarkets, can I trust it?

  14. David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, has done a ton of research on what food additives have done to our brains and bodies. http://bit.ly/9oNyQb It's sad how food processors can make us addicted to their products.

    There is an ADM high fructose corn syrup plant in my town. My kids have heard me rant about it's evils too many times to count. We do our level best to eschew all processed foods now.
    My recent post Wordless Wednesday: reform

  15. I am loving this series of posts. There is so much information out there and I know that many people (my friends and family included) do not want to put in the time and/or energy to research it all. I love how Michael Pollan sums it up: eat food (meaning whole food, not processed), not a lot, mostly plants. That I can easily understand. Now, in all honesty, my pantry does contain some processed food, but I am buying less and less and I now I and my family are the better for it.
    My recent post Successful Spring Break

  16. I know how you feel. Where we live there are a lot fewer choices than in the area where we used to live. However, I think it just becomes necessary to figure out the MOST natural choice you have within the area where you live. I do go to more than once store, but not many. Some places I visit rarely, but I stock up on things when I'm there, such as at a place that's kind of like Whole Foods but not near us. Also, I've had a little bit of luck buying some grocery items from Amazon. We subscribe to the Amazon Prime because we order from them for our work and that gives us "free" shipping (we do pay for that subscription, but we'd pay a lot more on shipping if we didn't do that). One big-name brand I like for cheese generally, not parmesan, is Tillamook. They don't add hormones.

  17. Thank you for this list of hidden MSG sources. My sister-in-law and I both get killer migraines from eating it!

  18. Heather, thanks so much for the info in this post. I'm severely allergic to MSG (my first reaction was life-threatening and with no preceding warning signs, just outof the blue). I have printed the list of what MSG can be disguised as and will be sharing it with my doctor, who told me it HAS to be stated separately on the label. I greatly appreciate the HFCS post too. And I'm very much looking forward to tha one on making the best of what's available. You rock!

  19. I'm liking where this discussion is going. I'm captaining the family of 7…..and I have been trying to weed out the harsher chemicals. I've been hearing so many bad things about HF Corn Syrup….but am relatively strung out on soft drinks. I recently switched to these "throw back" pepsi products made with REAL SUGAR (no hfcs) and although they taste a bit different I actually feel less anxious (I can get a bit high strung, sometimes). I went through our closet after THAT post and saw all the items that have HFCS. I am going to keep my eye out for items that do not have HFCS in them and see if I can get my kids off this stuff in the next month or so. I was REALLY surprised how many items in my pantry had it. Scary..
    My recent post Baby Shower Recipe Ideas

  20. I'm liking where this discussion is going. I'm captaining the family of 7…..and I have been trying to weed out the harsher chemicals. I've been hearing so many bad things about HF Corn Syrup….but am relatively strung out on soft drinks. I recently switched to these "throw back" pepsi products made with REAL SUGAR (no hfcs) and although they taste a bit different I actually feel less anxious (I can get a bit high strung, sometimes). I went through our closet after THAT post and saw all the items that have HFCS. I am going to keep my eye out for items that do not have HFCS in them and see if I can get my kids off this stuff in the next month or so. I was REALLY surprised how many items in my pantry had it. Scary..
    My recent post Baby Shower Recipe Ideas

  21. caryn verell says:

    i’ve been preaching to friends and family for years to leave the sugarfree/lowfat/nofat etc…stuff alone…and only because of the stuff that the manufacturers add to take the place of the stuff they leave out…always one should consume the real thing, just maybe less of it if they are watching their sugar levels or fat levels. i will never ever be convinced that lowfat mayo or sugar free cookies are good for us… i read somewhere that margarine is only one molecule from being plastic- now that alone is downright scarey.

  22. caryn verell says:

    i read somewhere about a year or so ago that margarine is only one molecule away from being a plastic…and look carefully at the labels of regular food items compared to items that are lowfat/low sugar…it is really scarey to see what they list to take place of what got taken out.

    • water, or H2O is only 1 molecule away from being hydrogen peroxide, H2O2, an ingredient used in bleaches, as an antiseptic, and as a propellant in rockets.

      the same thing with chlorine (Cl) and sodium chloride (NaCl, or table salt).

      my point being, that a small change in composition has major effects on the function of an molecule, and so it's very much more complicated than it seems

      • Here your information is incorrect. H202 and H20 are different only by one week covalent bond with another oxygen molecule. The bond is quite weak and breaks down in light, which is why Hydrogen Peroxide is sold in dark bottles.
        One atom makes a difference when you’re talking about chemical structure.
        However this is well off from the point of the conversation which is that quality of food matters and as consumers we should be aware of what we are consuming.

    • I am one molecule away from being awesome.

      Still, that doesn't mean that I'm in any danger of actually being awesome. Ever.

      And I'm not saying this to imply that margarine is just fine and dandy – it's already widely known that the transfats in it are horrible for your body. I'm just trying to make a point. Even if the molecular structure of margarine is extremely close to plastic (and I'm not even sure that's even in the same ball park as reality) that's not what makes it bad. You're not anywhere close to eating plastic.

      And I'm still not anywhere close to actually being awesome.

      My recent post Note to self

  23. do you consider the addition of sodium chloride (or table salt) to food products as dangerous or worthy of notice? because that's the same principle as you're noting.

    "It is adding a substance to nutritionally inferior foods to make them palatable and cause consumers to seek out more. By consuming food with artificially inflated taste, our bodies are not given the nutrition they expect, which triggers a cycle of craving and over-consumption of calories."

    if so, then there is a much bigger problem to deal with.

    • You know, I was just thinking we need a better term than chemical, it covers too broad a range.

      And to answer your question, I avoid canned soups and stocks primarily for their levels of sodium. It is absolutely unhealthy to receive 33% of your daily allotment from 1 serving of canned soup.

      I do use salt and herbs to improve the flavor of food, but when I do this, I know exactly how much and have seen the before. There is a difference.

      • of course, very true, and i'm not denying that. the effects of NaCl on our health in relation to heart disease is surely serious, and monitoring consumption is a smart decision.

        and i think i agree with all your points about the food industry. ultimately, the world (unfortunately) runs on money. i'd rather that people understood that things are much more complicated than they seem before making judgements and "ultimate" decisions/opinions. i'd rather educate people about msg, so that they can understand its principle before making their decision that "it's evil and kills brain cells"

        • The article never claimed any such thing and that's my objection. I cannot control what commenters state, it's an open forum -with exceptions for spamming. This means that in some cases commenters may make erroneous statements, but it does not change the tenor of the original article which in no way stated that MSG kills brain cells.
          Heck I'm fallible and make statements in ignorance or error. I do my best to avoid and fix the errors, but I am human.
          My concern with this conversation is the assumption that the intent of this article was alarmist in nature, when it was merely meant to call attention to some misleading labeling practices with which many consumers are unfamiliar.

  24. Thanks for the info! My 3 yr old daughter was diagnosed as autistic 6 mos ago and i have seen an incredible improvement (after the learning curve of reading misleading food labels) by removing gluten and casein foods. But i don’t think the issue is with the proteins – it’s the MSG levels in the process foods. I’m now going to go to the next level – which almost forces a near raw foods diet with perhaps untainted cooked meats to remove processed foods. I decided to go gluten free with my daughter as it was easier than trying to separate food items all the time and my headaches, sluggishness after meals, and cravings for bread went away and now it makes sense this is likely due to reducing MSG loads. This country is going to be plagued with high medical bills due to numerous neurological disorders if we don’t do something about our food supply and most of this country is not educated enough to do this on their own!

    • JP should do some self-educating using the FDA labeling guideline link mentioned.
      JP believes that companies deliberately strategize their profit goals very much realizing that consumers are not and will not look for resources or seek edification. Heather’s next line is sad and very likely true: “The average consumer does NOT dedicate this kind of research”.
      JP should do some nutritional body building using the FDA labeling guideline link suggested in Heather’s article.
      JP wonders (what or whether) we the consumers will care enough the send this very much needed information to our children and parents and fellow citizens. Is this one more area where we fail our sisters and brothers with attitudes of WGAS? WGAS: Who gives a shit!? < This is not a slap at Heather. It seems to be the way of falling/failing nations — et tu Brute’.
      While reading JP had some flashbacks to the cigarette industry . . .
      Thanks Heather,
      JP

  25. floweryhedgehog says:

    Did that "doing the best you can with what you have" post ever get written? I'm new to the site and haven't come across it yet, but it sounds like exactly the sort of thing I need right now. Balancing the best nutrition and quality with the reality of a limited budget is tough!

  26. hanairo103 says:

    I didn’t read every comment so I don’t know if another has mentioned this but I’d add anything “modified” to your list. I’ve found, as a MSG sensitive person, that any modified starch will cause me the same symptoms. Modified Food Starch seems to be the worse for me personally.