How the misrepresentation of a trusted product name could land you in the ER

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April 29, 2014

A Food Identity Theft Exclusive

By BILL BONVIE

oldbay1It may be one of the most deceptive – and dangerous – cases of misrepresentation that Food Identity Theft has yet come across.

As long-familiar food products go, Old Bay Seasoning is among the relative few that seem to have resisted a growing tide of adulteration with cheap additives and fake ingredients. First marketed in Baltimore as a seasoning for shrimp and crab more than 70 years ago, this “unique blend” of spices and herbs is “still produced to its original exacting standards,”  according to its website.

That’s what we thought, too. But then we discovered there’s a significant exception to that.  And should you suffer from a particular type of “intolerance,” it could well send you to the ER.

If you’re one of the many consumers (or amateur chefs) who enjoy the taste Old Bay gives to various dishes, and have confidence in its integrity, it seems only natural that when you spot a display of Herr’s “Old Bay Seasoned Potato Chips” in your supermarket, you might be inclined to throw a bag in your shopping cart. And that you might assume the ingredients are identical to the seemingly harmless ones listed in Old Bay Seasoning – especially since a graphic of the iconic blue, yellow and red tin is prominently featured on the front of the package.

But that assumption would be wrong – very wrong. And in this case, what you don’t know – that is, unless you happen to glance at the actual “seasoning” ingredients listed on the back of the package – can hurt you.

Because there, smack in the middle of those you’ll find included in the “seasoning” category, is the neurotoxic flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate.

That’s not something you’ll find in Old Bay itself, an institutional size container of which lists its ingredients as celery salt, (salt, celery seed), spices, including mustard, red pepper and black pepper, bay (laurel) leaves, cloves, allspice (pimento), ginger, mace, cardamom, cinnamon and paprika. In fact, McCormick & Co., which added the seasoning blend to its product line back in 1990,  makes a point of assuring consumers that there’s no monosodium glutamate in Old Bay.

But the presence of this pernicious additive in these supposed “Old Bay Seasoned” chips wasn’t the only thing we found, well, shocking. We were also quite taken aback when a spokesman for Herr’s denied that his company is the one that put it there, claiming that it’s part of the “seasoning formulation” directly supplied by the folks at McCormick.
In other words, like Fuzzy Wuzzy, Old Bay isn’t the same Old Bay you’ve come to know and love when it’s used to season a potato chip.

Reviewing the ‘rap sheet’ on MSG

oldbay2

As regular readers of this blog already know, the effects of monosodium glutamate (which is also known as MSG, although those initials can be applied to various other forms of free glutamic acid added to food) can have devastating effects on many people who are sensitive to it. For such individuals, reactions can include blinding headaches, asthma attacks, stomach distress and seizures. Those with extreme sensitivity can also suffer from symptoms resembling those of Alzheimer’s and life-threatening anaphylactic shock.  And according to the American Heart Association, it can even be a trigger for atrial fibrillation, the chaotic heart rhythm that increase your risk of stroke (and the possibility you’ll be put on a risky prescription drug).

In addition, both MSG and the artificial sweetener aspartame are chief among the additives referred to by some prominent neurologists as “excitotoxins” – a label given to them because of their ability to literally excite certain brain cells to death.  This reaction poses a particular threat to the behavior and learning ability of children and adolescents whose blood-brain barrier is still in a formative stage, and to older people who may have suffered strokes or other neurological problems. (Neurosurgeon Dr. Russell Blaylock, noted in his book Excitoxins: the Taste that Kills that reactions in the young can range from mild dyslexia to ‘outbursts of uncontrollable anger.”)

oldbay4In fact, McCormick & Co. features a recording on its consumer affairs line that it is “aware of special allergies and intolerances” to 11 ingredients that include “monosodium glutamate or MSG.”

Not that Herr’s is totally oblivious to such health issues. The front of its “Old Bay” bag, for instance, notes that the chips are “gluten free” (an acknowledgment that some consumers may be sensitive to gluten) and have zero grams of trans fats. But the fact that it contains monosodium glutamate is something you can only learn by scrutinizing the list of ingredients on the back.

And even if you turn the package around, what your eye will likely be drawn to is not the ingredients listing sandwiched between the Nutrition Facts label and the Product Guarantee” but a graphics-decorated blurb on the right side, signed by company President Ed Herr, telling unwary consumers how “(f)or more than 30 years now Herr’s has been seasoning fresh-cut potato chips with the classic blend of heat, sweet and savory known as Old Bay,” and briefly describing the seasoning’s history. And directly beneath that you’ll find a “recipe idea” for “Delicious Herr’s Old Bay Potato Chip Crab Cakes,” with nary a clue that its health-sounding components will include monosodium glutamate.

 

‘An entirely different product’

But according to Phil Bernas, the vice president for quality assurance at Herr’s, there’s nothing about the presentation of this product that hasn’t been thoroughly scrutinized and approved by McCormick. And it’s McCormick, not Herr’s, that “makes the total seasoning package” that goes into Old Bay Potato Chips, with his company being responsible only for the “base product” of sliced potatoes and some added salt, he told Food Identity Theft.

“This is a formulation that came out quite a few years ago and hasn’t been touched since,” he said. “The package design is one they encouraged us to have … they thought it was great for us to promote the product and promote Old Bay at the same time.” But he acknowledges that what the Old Bay Chips are seasoned with is “an entirely different product” than the Old Bay Seasoning sold in supermarkets. (We were unable to verify all this with McCormick by deadline time, although we did manage to reach a communications official there who promised to “look into it.”)

Not that Bernas is particularly concerned about the use of monosodium glutamate in an item that portrays itself as simply being seasoned with Old Bay. Like many people in the food industry, he‘s reassured by the fact that the Food and Drug Administration has declared it (and many other harmful additives) to be “generally regarded as safe,” or GRAS. “I can say it’s come under scrutiny by the FDA and there’s no scientific basis that the symptoms people claim are tied to MSG are caused by MSG,” he said, brushing aside a mountain of both scientific and anecdotal evidence to the oldbay3contrary.” The only thing the FDA requires is that we label it.”

He did, however, note that “our company and other companies are looking at ways to eliminate MSG, particularly in new products,” but “what has been harder is (getting rid of it in) products that have been tremendously successful and are difficult to reformulate. This product is very successful, particularly in major markets where old Bay Seasoning is popular.”

He’s also not worried that unwary consumers will buy it on the assumption that the ingredients are the same ones found in regular Old Bay Seasoning, contending that anyone who might be especially sensitive to MSG would be inclined to check the ingredients before using it.

And, yes, we would agree that you should scrutinize the ingredients of any processed food before you buy it.  But in era of busy schedules and fast-paced shopping, it’s easy to be fooled by a product that appears identical to something you think you’re already familiar with   And where monosodium glutamate is concerned, as many unwary people have learned the hard way, the results can be positively frightening.

(For more information on the effects of monosodium glutamate, see my review of Adrienne Samuels’ book The Man Who Sued the FDA.)