Are you aware that the FDA's recall of foods containing HVP, or hydrolyzed vegetable protein, originating last week, may become the largest food recall in history? I wasn't. I only became aware of this yesterday, when apparently the recall wave swept Pringles along too, ensuring that this would not go unnoticed.
First, why should you care?
Because hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) is in thousands of food products.
More specifically, HVP is a "flavor enhancer" for processed foods, and is found in products that run the gamut from soup to nuts, literally. HVP is in chips to dips, packaged burritos, prepared entrees including pasta and vegetarian tofu dinners, salad dressings, prepared salads, cheese, and hot dogs.
Second, what the heck is HVP?
Here's a picture of its chemical structure!
Hmm, it appears that hydrolyzed vegetable protein is really just MSG. Not exactly, though the chemical explanation around the relationship between the two is rather convoluted. For all practical purposes, HVP and MSG might as well be one and the same. HVP is made by breaking soybeans, corn, or wheat into amino acids through a chemical process. One of these amino acids is glutamic acid, which in its salt form is known as monosodium glutamate, or MSG. According to the FDA, if the glutamic acid in a food binds to a free source of sodium in that food it can form MSG - but this doesn't require labeling the product as containing MSG. That's only required if MSG is added directly. (Is HVP MSG? Not technically, but it's created like it, used like it and can result in it, and as such, can be a hidden source of MSG.)
Why the recall?
Because of contamination with salmonella. "Salmonella Tennessee," to be exact. On March 4th, the FDA announced an overarching recall of many of these products containing this HVP, which is made by Basic Food Flavors, Inc. in Nevada. The recall dates to products manufactured since September 17, 2009, which is a lot of food.
The products are too numerous to list here, but this is a continually updated list by the FDA of recalled products. I must admit to just quickly scanning the list because in general, I try to avoid processed foods, and for anything that does come in a package, I try to ensure there are less than 5 ingredients (and that I recognize - and can pronounce - all of them). However, I have read that HVP is usually not specifically named outright among ingredient lists on packages, but because it is derived from soy, corn, or wheat, HVP is usually disguised in the ingredient list as the very innocuous sounding "natural flavors" or "flavor enhancer."
To me, the most salient question arising from this most recent food recall is what are the possible health effects of ingesting this manufactured artificial ingredient? In a book entitled "Grocery Warning" written by consumer health advocate Mike Adams in 2006, HVP is listed as a potential hidden source of MSG, which is recognized as an excitotoxin. Chemical additives with excitotoxic properties can directly affect neurons (nerve cells), overexciting them to the point of cell death. Dr. Russell Blaylock, a neurosurgeon and author of "Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills," explored the link between MSG and other excitotoxin food additives including aspartame, mercury, and aluminum and their deleterious effects on human neurology. Blaylock claims that there is growing evidence that excitotoxins are a major cause of degenerative brain diseases including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's ALS, and multiple sclerosis.
Of course, there are skeptics of this viewpoint; after all, the FDA has deemed artificial food additives and other chemicals like MSG, HVP, TVP (textured vegetable protein - a major ingredient in many vegetarian prepared foods such as veggie burgers and veggie "meats"), aspartame, and other "flavor enhancers" as perfectly safe for human consumption. I find it rather ironic that these processed foods, little more than chemical constructions of artificial preservatives, fake flavors, thickeners, and texturizers, are being recalled for the health hazard of bacterial contamination when the damage to one's health becomes much more pervasive and insidious through the consistent ingestion of these so-called "foods."
Note: If you're interested in the events that led up to the recall, read NYU professor Marion Nestle's entry about it in her "Food Politics" blog. In addition, this is the Washington Post story that broke the news about the recall.
<----------- mmmm... yummy! bon appetit!