In fact what is the difference? The food that we eat is regulated by the Feds, they are very careful to ensure that nothing bad enters our tummies. You just have to switch on your TV to see that in action, Spinach, Eggs, Ground Beef, when the producers or packagers screw up, the Feds are on top of it!

Well, that is the picture that the average American is shown. But is it an accurate one?

For most people the subject of food outside of what is on their plate is just a pile of techno babble mumbo jumbo. Up until a few months ago I counted myself in that huge majority of society.

I have worked in many industries over the years and each one has its own language that means little to an outsider. Acronyms abound, Listening in on two computer geeks talking, one has to wonder if it is even English. The financial world is just as bad, on TV there is a popular program A Thousand ways to Die, well in the money business there are a thousand ways to calculate interest rates. None of which make a bit of sense to anyone outside of the industry. I could go on and on.

The food industry is no different, ‘foodspeak’ is the term I like to use. Foodspeak though, is a little more refined than other industries, it has crept into our everyday lives. Supposedly it is to to inform the consumer, but I am skeptical. Often they will use a word that is in common usage, ‘obfuscate’ is the perfect word to describe the situation. Few things are as they seem.

In simple plain english, if something is bad, you mask it behind something that is less bad. A great example of this is MSG, In the 1970’s the rather cute term ‘Chinese Restaurant Symptom was coined. A percentage of people that ate at Chinese Restaurants experienced some form of food allergy after their meal. The culprit was found to be a ‘flavor enhancer’, MSG.

There was a public outcry over MSG, suddenly MSG became public enemy number one. Although MSG was most widely talked about in relation to Chinese Food, it was also in use by the packaged and canned food industry. In a move that was PR oriented the big food companies decried the use of MSG in their products.

Problem solved, right?

Well not quite, industry statistics indicate that MSG usage by the food industry has ballooned from 1 million ponds in 1968 to a staggering 440 million pounds in 2008 (latest statistics available). MSG is not for sale as a product on the supermarket shelves as a stand alone item, asking the assistant which aisle the MSG is on will likely result in a blank look. MSG however is likely to be found in the products on many of the aisles. MSG is one of Big Foods dirty little secrets.

Why does Big Food love MSG? The answer is technically complex, but economically wonderful. Here in the west we think of there being four basic types of flavor, sweet, bitter, salty, and bitter. These building blocks can be used to describe any particular food. The Japanese on the other hand insist that there is a fifth element, they call it Umami. There is no direct translation, but maybe ‘deliciousness’ might be an approximation.

MSG adds Umami, it is billed as a flavor enhancer. But how can a tasteless white powder enhance flavor? The answer id long and very technically complex, but the simple easy to understand version is that it is a con job of epic proportions. Your brain is being conned, MSG operates in a not dissimilar way to cocaine. You are being conned into thinking something tastes great.

I don’t eat MSG, I check the labels and don’t buy products with MSG in it. 

When I hear this statement I just smile. I am reminded of a business expense adventure many years ago. My good friend and coworker had submitted an expense report that included a fabulously expensive lobster extravaganza. The food and wine had been spectacular, but also so was the size of the bill. Needless to say the accounting department became unglued when they saw the staggering amount our feast cost. They bounced it back with a terse note from a Vice President that food on the road was for sustenance not culinary adventure.

Unphazed, my friend Don reworked his expense report for our week on the East Coast, he resubmitted it with a note attached, ‘Lobster is still there, you find it’.

Very much this sums up the attitude of Big Food. Consumers have voiced that MSG is an unwelcome addition, by way of lip service Big Food leads us to believe that MSG is not a common additive. Read the label, you will not see MSG in the ingredient list is the clarion call from big food. But this is a BIG LIE. Just like Don and the Lobster Fest, MSG is still there, it just hides under numerous other names. The list is too long to print here but the recently published book It’s Not Your Fault by Mannie Barling and Ashley F. Brooks has a fairly comprehensive list. You can find the list here.

The subterfuge is known as ‘Clean Labels’. The manufacturers stay within the toothless guidelines of the FDA but have found a convenient loop hole to hide inconvenient ingredients.

That boring little box of information on your packaged or canned foods can be a wealth of knowledge, but, who bothers to read them? And maybe of even greater importance, few can understand them because of industry deception.

Simon Barrett

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