Massive Food Recall Raises Question: What Is Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein?

HVP is in thousands of products, but what exactly is it, and how do you avoid it?

March 16, 2010

A huge recall has brought attention to a common food ingredient most of us have never heard of.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—If high levels of salt and genetically modified organisms aren't enough to drive you away from processed foods, the ongoing recall of processed foods, ranging from chips and dips to bouillon cubes and beef taquitos, might. The recall, due to a salmonella-contaminated ingredient widely used in food processing, was first announced on March 4 and has since expanded to 110 products and counting, adding up to over a million pounds of food.


THE DETAILS: At the center of the recall is hydrolyzed vegetable protein, an ingredient derived mostly from soy, and in some cases corn or wheat. It's made by taking one of the aforementioned crops and breaking those down into individual proteins, which are then used to add flavor and boost the protein content of foods, says Clair Hicks, PhD, professor of food science at the University of Kentucky and a spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technology. It has a few other functions, as well. A lot of fast-food restaurants use meat treated with hydrolyzed vegetable protein because it allows the meat to retain more water, so it tastes juicier. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein isn't normally added to meat sold in retail stores, he says, because consumers don't like the idea of buying meat injected with additives, but it is a common ingredient in processed meats like hot dogs and meat alternatives like tofu.

WHAT IT MEANS: Fortunately, there have been no reports so far of illnesses associated with the salmonella-tainted flavoring, despite that fact that hydrolyzed vegetable protein can crop up in thousands of products. So far, the recall has included chips, dips, powdered soup and dip mixes, pretzels, spice mixes, bottled salad dressing, beef taquitos, canned stew, and gravy.

Read on to learn more about hydrolyzed vegetable protein and how you can avoid it.

However, aside from the current potential for salmonella infections, there are a few other reasons to avoid products made with HVP. For one, it's likely derived from genetically modified organisms, considering that 72 percent of all soy and corn crops grown in this country have at least one genetically modified trait. Second, it could trigger allergies in people allergic to soy or wheat products, even if it's present in small amounts, says Hicks. It's often recommended that people suffering from celiac disease avoid products with hydrolyzed vegetable protein entirely. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), hydrolyzed vegetable protein also contains monosodium glutamate (MSG), which can trigger headaches in sensitive individuals.

So how can you avoid it? Keep an eye out for these terms on ingredients labels:

•  "Natural flavors." Usually "natural flavors," which are listed as such on a product's ingredients panel, are anything but. According to CSPI, the term covers hundreds of chemicals that are combined to mimic the natural flavor of whatever food a manufacturer wants to imitate, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein can be one of those chemicals.

•  Anything "hydrolyzed." While it can lurk in flavoring mixes, most of the time hydrolyzed vegetable protein is used in high enough concentrations that it has to be listed on an ingredients panel, says Hicks. Keep an eye out for "hydrolyzed vegetable protein," "hydrolyzed soy protein" and "hydrolyzed wheat protein," the latter of which is commonly used in personal-care products to help skin and hair retain moisture. But don't just read labels on chips and dip mixes. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein can crop up in seemingly healthy foods like broths, canned tuna, and meat products like self-basting turkeys.

•  USDA Organic. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein is not allowed in certified-organic products, due to the way it’s produced (to make it, the soy or corn or wheat is boiled in hydrochloric acid). Although some items on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA's) list of recalled foods have "organic" in their names, a representative from the USDA’s National Organic Program told that it was most likely due to the company’s noncompliance with the USDA Organic standards.

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