Elegant dining won’t necessarily help you to avoid MSG, HFCS

Posted by
July 17, 2012

Are you one of those ‘picky eaters’ who conscientiously reads food labels, rejecting processed products that contain high fructose corn syrup, MSG in all its forms and other suspect ingredients?

I hope so.  But I’d also like to let you in on a little secret: if you occasionally eat out, it’s more than likely you’re ingesting many of those same nasty additives you go to such trouble to avoid at home.

And if you think that doesn’t apply to you because you shun fast-food restaurants in favor of more elegant eateries, think again. Actually, it’s easier to find out what’s in a McDonald’s or KFC concoction than in a fancy restaurant dish. And grilling the server till you get pegged as an obnoxious customer may not be of much help in finding out either. Although your server may be able to rattle off each special and soup of the day,  he or she probably has no idea of what ingredients went into its preparation.

While you may assume that paying a top price for an entree guarantees a “made from-scratch” dish prepared by a skilled chef, the fact is that many pricy establishments take shortcuts too, and what’s advertised as “homemade” may not mean what you think it does.

A big supplier to the restaurant industry is the mega-corporation Unilever, owner of such diverse companies as Ben & Jerry’s, Sunlight dish detergent, Bertolli Olive Oil and Lipton Tea. The company also has a division called Unilever Food Solutions, which is described as “…the leading global provider of culinary and commercial inspiration to chefs.”

Some of that added “inspiration” includes ingredients such as Knorr Ultimate Bases, Hellmann’s Real Sauces, Knorr Ready-To-Use-Sauces and LeGout Cream Soup Base.

Hold the MSG

If you’ve ever asked your server or heard someone inquire whether the restaurant uses MSG, most likely the answer was “no.” MSG, after all, isn’t very popular these days; it’s a cheap and easy way to make less-than-high-quality food taste better. While the chef may no longer sprinkle MSG directly on a dish (as was popular back in the 1960’s before we knew any better), it appears that all Unilever Food Solutions base ingredients do contain MSG.

Both the Knorr Roasted Beef Base and Chicken Base are not only made with hydrolyzed protein, which contains processed free glutamic acid (the chicken variety also has autolyzed yeast extract, yet another ‘hidden’ form of MSG), but disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate, expensive flavor ‘potentiaters’ that work synergistically with processed free glutamic acid.

Don’t think such ingredients are just for “dives” that don’t have a high-class chef, Unilever apparently knows otherwise. The company features Marco Pierre White, a “three Michelin star” chef no less, on a special “make it like Marco” mini-site that advises restaurant owners and chefs against being “narrow minded” or “afraid to use convenience products.” Marco doesn’t “tolerate snobbery” and feels that the Knorr products, which he has used as a base in his kitchens for over 30 years, “adds that extra kick of flavor.”

So now we know that if you break the bank to eat at one of Marco’s “kitchens” such as the Oak Room at Le Meridien Piccadilly in London, that obscenely-priced “perfect steak” was liberally MSG’d  with Knorr Ultimate Roasted Beef Base.

If you’re a vegetarian, things don’t look much better. While the product-information page for the Knorr Vegetable (Vegetarian) Base doesn’t contain an ingredient list, it does give a link for a “product specification” sheet for “basic line bouillon” that not only includes monosodium glutamate and yeast extract, but also says it’s not vegetarian due to flavorings that contain “meat and cysteine from duck feathers.”

Just what is “homemade” anyway?

Unilever’s LeGout Cream Soup Base, containing autolyzed yeast extract and disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate, generally an accomplice to processed free glutamic acid (MSG), is used to make everything from soup to sauces, dips and entrees and is called “the ideal starter for many popular comfort foods!” by Unilever. Even the LeGout “no MSG added” soup base contains autolyzed yeast extract.

But the most bizarre case of restaurant trickery appears to be the Lipton 1-2-Tea brand concentrate for restaurant use, described as unsweetened, “real brewed iced tea,” that contains “high fructose corn syrup and corn tea extract,” as well as two preservatives and a food coloring, red 40.

While the HFCS content is probably small due to the zero-calorie listing (foods and beverages with less than five calories per serving can state “calorie free” on the label), unsweetened, “brewed” tea is probably the last place you would expect to find HFCS. Unilever didn’t return my phone calls about 1-2-Tea, so my question about the possible use of HFCS 90, a 90-percent fructose HFCS formula used in diet and low-calorie foods, remains unanswered.

So how does an informed consumer eat out? The best tip seems to be, unless you have an “in” with the restaurant owner and know you’re getting good information as to how the food is prepared, to steer clear of soups, items with sauces, gravies, creamed dishes and just about anything else that has numerous ingredients. And I’d make a point of avoiding Chef Marco’s high-priced eateries.