While some labels provide useful information that may not be readily detectable by consumers, others contain misleading claims that exploit a knowledge gap with consumers. And one victim of this “marketing of absence” is MSG (monosodium glutamate).
I teach nutrition at a local college and spend a whole session on food labels. I ask each student to bring in a product that has some type of claim on the package. The most frequent statements (in no particular order of frequency) are:
- Gluten free
- No added hormones
- No high fructose corn syrup
- Dairy free
- Sugar free
- No MSG
I tell my students that the traditional drivers of food choice (price, income, taste, and convenience) are shifting towards different aspects of food. And that the number of consumers paying close attention to the health, safety, and social impacts of food consumption has increased.
As a result, consumers are confronted with a myriad of food labels appearing on grocery store shelves conveying information about nutrition (e.g., ingredients, nutrition facts, serving size), product origin (e.g., country) and much more. We then discuss that while some labels provide useful information, others exploit knowledge gaps.
My class then looks at marketing strategy of food companies and discovers that in response to consumer demand, labeling has gone beyond saying what is in a product to labeling what is not in the food.
Marketing of Absence
For example, the students looked at a “premium” water that’s labeled as free of GMOs and gluten; never mind that not a single drop of water anywhere contains either gluten or was genetically altered. And a “no added hormones” label has become the trend within the poultry industry, even though federal law already makes it illegal to sell poultry in the U.S. that was raised with added hormones.
As a registered dietitian I feel it’s wrong to stigmatize foods that do not harm human health. While some labels provide useful information that may not be readily detectable by consumers, others contain misleading claims that exploit a knowledge gap with consumers. And one victim of this “marketing of absence” is MSG (monosodium glutamate), as witnessed by those processed foods that carry the claim “No MSG.”
People around the world have eaten glutamate-rich foods throughout history. MSG is sodium plus glutamate, and glutamate occurs naturally in many foods, such as tomatoes and cheeses. And MSG has been used as a food additive for decades.
“Over the years, FDA has received reports of symptoms such as headache and nausea after eating foods containing MSG. However, we were never able to confirm that the MSG caused the reported effects.”
– U.S. Food & Drug Administration
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers the addition of MSG to foods to be “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). Although a small number of people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG (in food) or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions.
It’s clear that food manufacturers should rethink absence claims solely as a marketing lever. Voluntary process labeling can help consumers make informed decisions. But two conditions are required to avoid causing false implications about a food product. The first is that the labeling claims must be true and scientifically verifiable. The second is that the process labels claiming a product “contains” or is “free of” a certain production-related process should also include labels on the package stating the current scientific consensus regarding the importance of this attribute.
Are you using “free-from” claims as the ultimate guide to what you put into your grocery cart? Are you more concerned about what’s not in your food rather than what is in it? When it comes to MSG – don’t be!
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