Posted by Linda Bonvie
June 17, 2014
A Food Identity Theft Exclusive
By BILL BONVIE
It’s a case of a dangerous deception having taken on a whole new dimension.
Back in April, we first warned you how the name and image of Old Bay Seasoning, a brand long trusted for the integrity of its ingredients, was being misrepresented by another product, Herr’s Old Bay Seasoned Potato Chips, which contain an additive — the neurotoxic flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate – that can cause some people to suffer extremely adverse reactions.
We also revealed how this classic example of what we mean by “food identity theft” involved not only Herr’s, but McCormick & Co., the spice manufacturer that acquired Old Bay nearly a quarter century ago, and that we discovered was supplying Herr’s with the “seasoning package” for the chips in question.
But what we didn’t know at the time was that those chips, whose bag features a depiction of MSG-free Old Bay Seasoning, were only the initial offering in a bogus Old Bay snack product line. Since then, two new “Old Bay” products have arrived in our local supermarket –Herr’s Old Bay Seasoned Popcorn and Cheese Curls, both of which also list monosodium glutamate among their ingredients.
In fact, they’ve even got an Old Bay snack display that’s topped by a cardboard crab and blow-up of the iconic blue, yellow and red Old Bay canister — just to reinforce the impression that the products underneath are flavored with many people’s favorite seasoning, the one described at its website as a “unique blend” of spices and herbs that’s “still produced to its original exacting standards.” And that’s not the only location where we found these snack foods on display, both companies having gone ahead with a high-powered point-of-purchase marketing campaign apparently aimed at the 4th of July picnic crowd.
Now, while it may be true that the presence of pure MSG (as opposed to forms of free glutamic acid with other names) is often found in snack foods, what makes this campaign particularly devious is the assumption many people might make that the seasoning they’re topped with is the same familiar MSG-free product they’re used to sprinkling on seafood and other dishes.
The danger of ‘a little flavor enhancer’
Nor is popcorn a snack to which MSG is ordinarily added – in fact, neither Herr’s Original Popcorn nor Herr’s Light Popcorn contain any – and that might make people especially apt to presume there’s none in Old Bay Seasoned Popcorn. Both those factors could easily cause MSG-sensitive individuals (and there are quite a few of them) to suffer adverse reactions, some serious enough to land them in the ER, such as seizures and atrial fibrillation. And that’s not to mention the damaging effects that some neuroscientists say this “excitotoxin” can have on brain cells, especially in children and older people who don’t have a fully functioning blood-brain barrier.
A call to Herr’s confirmed what I suspected – that the popcorn and cheese curls are indeed newly minted products, as opposed to the potato chips, whose formulation, according to a Herr’s executive, was introduced a number of years ago and “hasn’t been touched since.” The person with whom I spoke also repeated what I was originally told about the potato chips – that “what we’ve learned at Herr’s through research and development in taste tests is that customers actually prefer the flavor of the product with a little flavor enhancer that the MSG is used for.”
Well, of course, they would – especially if the taste test subjects don’t know that “a little flavor enhancer” has been added, and that it’s monosodium glutamate.
What this really all amounts to is a kind of doubly deceptive method of marketing these snack foods. First, it creates the impression that they’re flavored with Old Bay Seasoning, when they’re actually seasoned with “an entirely different product” – a fact acknowledged to me by Phil Bernas, the vice president for quality assurance at Herr’s, when I interviewed him for my first blog on this subject. And then the items are made to seemingly taste even better than one might expect of something seasoned with Old Bay by adding monosodium glutamate.
Technically, of course, they may have fulfilled the requirements set by the Food and Drug Administration that monosodium glutamate need only be listed among the ingredients. But there’s no getting around the implication that “Old Bay Seasoned” means seasoned with Old Bay – not an “entirely different product” that could be hazardous to your health and brain.