Vegetable Protein: Culprit of the Moment



A day hasn't gone by recently without my getting another recall notice. I didn't pay much attention at first because I know our chefs make salad dressings rather than purchase them, and they prepare their own stocks for soup. (Many of the recall items have been soup bases, including several for "low sodium chicken soup base—no MSG added" which sure sounds benign.) But after a week of similar emails, sometimes twice a day, it's hard not to notice a disturbing pattern.

Hydrolyzed vegetable protein—something I had never heard of before two weeks ago—is apparently the newest source of Salmonella contamination. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 76 million foodborne illnesses occur in the United States every year. Almost one in four Americans becomes ill after eating foods contaminated with such pathogens as E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, hepatitis A, Norovirus, and others.

HVP is a flavor enhancer used in a wide variety of processed food products, including everyday convenience items such as soups, sauces, chilis, hot dogs, gravies, potato chips, dips, and salad dressings, including some labeled as "organic." Some "ready-to-eat" tofu dinners have been implicated even though HVP is primarily designed for chicken, beef, and pork applications. HVP is often blended with other spices to make seasonings and is often identified simply as "natural smoke flavor" that is used in, or on, prepared foods. Some HVP products are described by their manufacturers as "trans-fat free" and "non-GMO."

In other words, HVP could be in almost any food (or as the food manufacturing industry would say, "food product") that comes pre-prepared.

Fundamentally, HVP is part of food manufacturers' arsenal to increase shelf life. The term "flavor enhancer" is itself interesting. Government agencies and prepared food manufacturers use the term as if we should all be comfortable with it. As if, somehow, it's just another "natural" ingredient like mustard and pepper, the world's most popular spices. I find that assumption to be curious.

Unfortunately, HVP from one U.S.-based manufacturer may have been contaminated with a strain of Salmonella in the production process. And now it's in hundreds of foods—700 are affected by the recall at the time of this writing. If my in-box is any indication, this one is going to result in lots of products being taken off shelves.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (quoting Wikipedia on its site; yes, really), HVP is "produced by boiling cereals or legumes, such as soy, corn, or wheat, in hydrochloric acid and then neutralizing the solution with sodium hydroxide." Acid breaks down (hydrolyzes) the protein in the cereals or grains into their component amino acids, one of which contains glutamic acid. If the glutamic acid in a food binds to a free source of sodium in that food, it can form monosodium glutamate (MSG). The FDA doesn't require labeling the product as containing MSG. (Labeling is only required if MSG is added directly.)

Many consumers could feel safe because they reject packages that contain MSG, and many Chinese restaurant menus explicitly say "No MSG." But this only scratches the surface. Not only do packages rarely list hydrolyzed vegetable protein among their ingredients, but a lot of HVP has been sold through the supply chain to other companies who have the right to identify "natural flavors" as an ingredient. This is allowable because HVP is derived from plants.

In most cases, you wouldn't even know you're eating the stuff.

Cooking can kill Salmonella during manufacturing or when processed food is cooked. But many of the products in this recall are mixes for dips and salad dressings that don't require cooking, and there are potentially hundreds of other condiments that would never get heated.

As the recall notices continue—even over the weekend—it is hard not to view them as evidence that our food system faces very significant challenges. If food producers value stable shelf life more than nutritional quality (do we really need our protein to be hydrologized?), and flavor enhancements have to be manufactured rather than achieved through roasting or other cooking techniques, then we have to question the many roles of technology in producing our food. Here may be another example of why traceability is so important, and where losing the accountability thread results in fear (or sickness) because we don't know if our food has been tainted. Perhaps it's really true that "cooking from scratch" —without manufactured help—ensures safer food.