Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pea Protein, Glutamic Acid & MSG in Kinnikinnick Products: Facts & Myths

Once again, I'm writing a response to an issue that is a result of misleading or incomplete information found on certain websites. The issue this time? The notion that companies are hiding MSG in their products by labeling it Pea Protein. If you'd like to see what I'm talking about just search for "pea protein, MSG". You finds dozens of sites making this claim and warning people to beware of companies using pea protein because they are lying to consumers. On there was even someone who has stopped using our products "after the horrible discovery I made about PEA PROTEIN being nothing more than MSG." This is from a message thread several years old and I would have responded if I'd seen it but I'll at least attempt to explain why this person is wrong. I'll also note that to my knowledge, we didn't receive any email inquiries about pea protein in the time around when this thread was active.

I will note before I continue that I can't speak for other manufacturers and what follows may or may not apply to them.

The basics. For those that don't want to read the wikipedia links for the following terms I'll summarize but I encourage you to read the whole thing as partial information is big part of the problem. If you don't read the whole thing, you won't know if -I'm- making things up or taking things out of context, right? I'm also not a chemist or biologist so I may even get some of this wrong. Feel free to correct me in the comments.

What is MSG. wikipedia

"Monosodium glutamate, also known as sodium glutamate and MSG, is a sodium salt of the naturally occurring non-essential amino acid glutamic acid. It is used as a food additive and is commonly marketed as a flavour enhancer. "

You'll note that wikipedia lets us know that MSG is gluten free. This is the stuff we're all familiar with. A white powder you can buy in the spice section of most grocery stores. The stuff that they put in Chinese food that seems to give some people headaches or possibly bring on an asthma attack. The stuff that has been vilified for years and maybe rightly so (although there doesn't seem to be any valid double blind studies showing extreme adverse sides effects). Personally, I try to avoid it. One thing that is completely clear. If it's added to a product it -must- be listed in the ingredients.

What is Glutamic Acid - wikipedia

Simply put, Glutamic acid is an amino acid which leads to the formation of glutamate. Glutamate is a key molecule in cellular metabolism. It helps remove nitrogen from the body. It is also "the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter in the vertebrate nervous system." and "is involved in cognitive functions like learning and memory in the brain. " Short version? It is a key building block in virtually all living things. And not just blogging living things. It's in virtually all meat, dairy, eggs (and of course seaweed, the original source of MSG) and also in protein rich plants such as legumes (beans and peas). (see where this is going?)

What's the supposed Pea Protein/MSG connection.
Many of the websites making the claims that Pea Protein is a way to hide MSG in the products state that "Calling an ingredient pea protein indicates that the pea has been hydrolyzed, at least in part" [*]

Now it is correct to say that hydrolyzed protein of any kind can form free glutamates.

"Hydrolyzed proteins, used by the food industry to enhance flavor, are simply proteins that have been chemically broken apart into amino acids. The chemical breakdown of proteins may result in the formation of free glutamate that joins with free sodium to form MSG." [*]

What is incorrect to say is that all pea proteins are hydrolyzed. Here is a direct quote from our manufacturer of pea protein.

"Our pea protein is definitely not hydrolyzed. Most of the MSG concerns do come from proteins being hydrolyzed. Whatever glutamic acid is present in peas naturally is what ends up in our product. Our process in fact does not encourage the protein breaking down into smaller units
(favoring the formation of MSG - which is a smaller subunit) but it does the opposite."

Granted, not every manufacturer will use our supplier of pea protein and I can't speak to other protein manufacturer's processes, but it seems a basic assumption of the pea protein/MSG conspiracy theory has a bit of a hole. Pea proteins do -not- have to hydrolyzed. And there's one other little problem. Both CFIA & FDA labeling regulations require that any hydrolyzed proteins are indicated as such on the ingredient panel. You can't legally hide hydrolization by mislabeling a product. I don't know of any company that would risk censure, recall or possibly fines and even jail for fraud for intentionally mislabeling a product.

The other issue when it comes to our products specifically is the question of why people think we'd add MSG to bakery products in the first place. MSG is known as a "flavour enhancer" but it's a mistake to think it enhances all flavours. It actually contributes a "savouriness" which some are now classifying as "umami"[*] or the 5th basic flavour (along with sweet, salty, bitter and sour) Umami is great for things like meat and soups but a savoury, meaty cookie? Not something I'd want. (not accounting for Bacon Chocolate Chip Cookies). I also must let you know that the pea protein itself has quite a strong flavour of peas and we have to be pretty careful about how much we use so it doesn't become overpowering. Again another strike against the flavour enhancement theory.

OK. So now you know that our pea protein has about as much glutamic acid as the peas themselves and that we don't add pea protein to enhance the flavour. Why -do- we use it?

Let's go back to 1998. I had a customer call me and she told me that she was trying out the GFCF (gluten free casein free) diet and she wanted to know if we could make some special order products for her. At that time, while we were entirely gluten free, most of our products contained dairy. Fortunately, back then we were small enough that we could do special orders, but only if we had a sufficient demand to justify an entire day's production. We began to have Dairy Free Mondays a couple of days a months where all we'd produce was dairy free products.

This worked well for a while, but soon it worked too well. We realized the demand for GF and dairy free products was very large and we decided to go as dairy free as possible. Now one thing to keep in mind is that baked goods in the non-GF world rely on just a few things. At it's most basic it's wheat flour, water and yeast. Importantly, that wheat flour consists of starch and protein (that being gluten of course) In the GF world we rely extensively on starches and rice flour. Starches basically have no protein and rice flour doesn't have a protein structure that is very good for baking. So we add gums and other proteins to mimic the gluten. When we removed dairy, we needed a substitute protein so we turned to soy. This worked well, but it was not long before we started to see a lot of people with soy allergies and intolerances. Soy is, after all, one of the top 8 most common allergens.

So, about 5-6 years ago, we made the decision to start removing soy from as many products as we could. Again, we were faced with finding an alternative to dairy and soy proteins. Our answer. You guessed it. Pea protein. It gives us the required functionality and is far less allergenic than soy. Certainly some people have issues but we hear from far fewer than we did with soy.

We use pea protein purely for its functionality. It works for us and is not very allergenic. We also use it in small quantities so the amounts of glutamic acid from peas in our products is far less than the glutamic acid you'd get from the eggs in our products (again naturally occurring) . So there you have it. I hope I've cleared some things up for some people.


Holly said...

Thank you so much for this informative post! I am very sensitive to free glutamates, and this really clears up a few things for me, especially with regard to your products and your intent! Your efforts are much appreciated, and I will continue to recommend your products to newly GF friends.

tonya said...

My daughter follows the GFCF diet, and is also highly sensitive to free glutamates. Thank you for taking the time to clarify your ingredients. We love your products!

Jenny said...

This is a great post - thank you! I am extremely sensitive to the tiniest amount of MSG and my son has multiple food allergies and loves your products! I have been hesitant to buy them after reading that pea protein could have MSG so thanks for the clarification.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your post. It is very helpful, but I detected a note of defensiveness. Maybe it's just me. Or maybe you just don't know how hard it has been for some of us with one sensitivity after another. I don't know, maybe you do know.
We get HUNGRY. Everyone around us is "eating, drinking and being merry", but we're too busy worrying, because some corporation assumes we KNOW that 'hydrolized' pea protein is different from 'regular' pea protein. (Present company excluded. pun!!)
Anyway, I appreciate that you are making an effort to produce safe food, but I do know lots of businesses that ARE willing to risk censure to get the things they want in a product. Look at the tobacco industry, for one. I can't tell you how many migraines I've suffered because someone didn't just spell it out on the label. If they had, I would have passed on it and avoided a three day, in-the-bed, can't-see-out-of-my-right-eye, drugs-don't-do-a-thing headache. My husband has to come home from work and feed me, help me to the bathroom and do everything else. It feels like I have been violently assaulted, and then there is the week long 'hangover' period, after the pain goes away. This is the result of companies not putting the fact that "these ingredients constitute free glutamic acids' on the label of the products they place on the market, sometimes with labels that specify "No Added MSG". I'm sorry, that's just misleading, and it causes damage to their customers. I might lose my right eye if I keep having these migraines, and if I died from something I consumed, can I buy products? It doesn't make sense to me.
Sorry for the rant...My food list grows smaller and smaller. I'm trying so hard, and yet still have problems, so I'm a little frustrated.
I hope you will publish my comment, as I have only the best regards toward you and your company.

JayB said...

If we are being defensive, it it simply because we use an ingredient which has been labelled as harmful, and by inference, that we are being dishonest in our labelling by some websites. This was our response.

As noted by our pea products supplier, "Our pea protein is definitely not hydrolyzed. Most of the MSG concerns do come from proteins being hydrolyzed. Whatever glutamic acid is present in peas naturally is what ends up in our product. Our process in fact does not encourage the protein breaking down into smaller units
(favoring the formation of MSG - which is a smaller subunit) but it does the opposite."

I checked what their process was. They crush the peas into a paste, wash it with water in a special centrifuge to remove the starch(which we also use)and what is left is pea fibre and pea protein. The fibre and protein are separated mechanically. And that's it. What ever amount glutamic acid that was in the peas to start, remains in the pea protein. It is part of the chemical structure of the pea protein itself.

We absolutely appreciate how difficult it can be when faced with multiple intolerances and allergies. It's why we do what we do. Unfortunately, we can't accommodate every intolerance or allergy.

Anonymous said...

For what its worth, your article didn't sound defensive at all to me; rather helpful and informative, with a clear design to be accurate. Thanks.

LH said...

Thanks for your clarification! I was in the store trying to decide if I should try your waffles and I read your article. Very informative! I am with the lady that gets migraines. I end up in hospital with spastic intestines if I ingest msg even in the smallest amounts so I really appreciate a company I can trust! Thanks again.