Hidden MSG and the ‘soup wars’

Posted by
March 1, 2012

It says "No MSG," but this product contains autolyzed yeast

2008 could go down in the annals of advertising escapades as the year of the “soup wars.” I’m not sure who fired the first shot, but by the fall of that year, Campbell and Progresso were flinging slings and arrows back and forth claiming one had more MSG-free soups than the other.

The biggest skirmish in the battle came when Progresso took out ads saying: “Campbell’s has 95 soups with MSG; Progresso has 26 delicious soups with No MSG.”  Campbell’s responded with an ad in The New York Times that showed a can of Progresso soup with the caption “Made with MSG,” alongside cans of Campbell’s Select Harvest soup saying, “Made with TLC.”

Along the way the Glutamate Association, the trade group that represents users and manufacturers of monosodium glutamate, entered the fray saying all this was merely a “marketing gimmick” that will confuse consumers into thinking that MSG, “…a perfectly safe product poses a health risk…”

The Glutamate Association did get something right: it was a “marketing gimmick,” a sneaky one known as “clean labeling.”

A “clean” label is one that does not list ingredient names consumers look to avoid, the kind that will get the product put back on the shelf rather than in the shopping cart. Where MSG is concerned, “clean labeling” can mean listing such flavor-enhancing ingredients as “yeast extract” or “hydrolyzed protein” instead of the better-known (and often shunned) “monosodium glutamate.”

MSG-Free It’s Not

If a food contains monosodium glutamate, according to the Food and Drug Administration, that fact must be stated on the label. However, monosodium glutamate is only one of many ingredients  containing “free” glutamate (or manufactured glutamic acid) that is used in processed foods.

A check of Campbell’s Select Harvest, “No MSG added, 100 percent natural,” Savory Chicken and Brown Rice soup offers a good example of a “clean” label. Using yeast extract, a source of ‘hidden’ MSG, and “natural flavors,” which are typically another place to conceal free glutamate, Campbell’s goes to town advertising the naturalness and ‘MSG free-ness’ of its product.

In an interesting aside, the Campbell’s website (which doesn’t list the actual soup ingredients) contains an “ingredient glossary,” to help you “learn more about the ingredients found in our soups.” However while there are definitions for things such as lime juice (“the juice of limes”), and barley (“a hardy cereal grain”), there are none for monosodium glutamate, yeast extract, and natural flavors.

This "No MSG" product contains "yeast extract"

It’s natural, right?

Another selling point for some of these foods is the assertion that the MSG, from whatever source, is “naturally occurring,” as in “hey, we didn’t put it in on purpose, it just naturally happened when we added these ingredients.” Don’t believe it. “Naturally occurring” is never defined, and the free glutamate, whether referred to as “monosodium glutamate” or by any other name, was added for the purpose of improving taste and sales. It didn’t get there by accident.

Here are some more sneaky names of ingredients that contain free glutamic acid:

  • autolyzed plant protein,
  • autolyzed yeast,
  • calcium caseinate
  • glutamate
  • hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP)
  • hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)
  • maltodextrin
  • monopotassium glutamate
  • sodium caseinate
  • soy protein concentrate
  • textured protein
  • yeast food or nutrient
  • yeast extract

(For a complete list, as well as lots more information on monosodium glutamate and free glutamic acid, click here.)

In an interesting test (although not a scientific one, by any means) of how many shoppers are avoiding MSG, a large supermarket a few miles from where I live that is going out of business (and reducing all items by 80 percent) had just about been stripped clean of all products last time I was there, with the exception of a full stock of jars of Accent – a flavoring ingredient comprised of pure monosodium glutamate.

The “soup wars” may be over, but if you want to be a savvy consumer and avoid all forms of free glutamic acid under whatever name it masquerades, nothing takes the place of reading the ingredient label. Because no matter what you call it, it’s all still MSG.

Linda Bonvie, FoodIdentityTheft.com