Labels should disclose the presence of MSG
I went to Times Super Market in Kahala recently and purchased a packaged tray of choi sum with tofu. I had a headache for three days and wondered if the dish had any MSG (monosodium glutamate) in it, which was not disclosed in the labeling. I talked to the company that packaged the food and was told they use "hondashi" (powdered fish stock base) with bonito flakes and that this ingredient might have MSG in it. I Googled "hondashi" and discovered it has MSG. I try very hard to stay away from food and restaurants that serve food with MSG, knowing that it'll trigger headaches. I thought foods, by law, are supposed to contain a list of ALL their ingredients. I would think the whole premise of listing ingredients for food is to alert the public so you can avoid foods if you have food sensitivities.
Answer: The label should have indicated all the ingredients found in the product.
Based on your query, an inspector from the state Department of Health's Food and Drug Branch visited the supermarket and the food company (although it was not the one you named), and found the choi sum with tofu product mislabeled, said Branch Supervisor Lori Nagatoshi.
Specifically, the label did not list the sub-ingredients of the bonito powder, which includes MSG, she said.
The company was cited for "misbranding" the product and ordered to redo all labels to properly state all ingredients, she said.
You did well to question the labeling.
Food inspectors do find errors in labeling, either as part of routine manufacturing inspections, which include a label review process, or while checking on a complaint like yours, Nagatoshi said.
Unless mislabeling continues, the Food and Drug Branch seeks to keep businesses in compliance mainly through education, she said.
Anyone who suspects that a label does not identify all ingredients can call the Food and Drug Branch at 586-4725.
Under state regulations, which basically are adopted from those set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, food labels are required to list four things, Nagatoshi said:
» The product by its most common name.
For example, Nagatoshi said, many people in Hawaii may know what "chichi dango" is, but it should specify "two-colored mochi" or something to that effect. Similarly, "musubi" should be labeled "rice ball." Nagatoshi said companies are "encouraged" to use words found in the English dictionary, so the correct terminology would be "soy sauce" rather than "shoyu."
» The net weight of the product.
The common name and weight are usually found on the front of a product.
» The ingredient statement, listed by weight, from most to least.
For a product that contains more than one ingredient, or if an ingredient contains a sub-ingredient, "those sub-ingredients need to be declared in parenthetical form, right after that ingredient," Nagatoshi said.
With food allergies on the rise, Nagatoshi noted that the FDA last year began requiring an "allergen statement" on labels.
So something like casein, a milk derivative, needs to be clearly identified, either in the ingredient list or in a separate statement on the label. Most manufacturers appear to be opting for the separate statement, Nagatoshi said.
Because people may not readily associate casein with milk or dairy products, if casein is a sub-ingredient, the label must say "casein," then in parenthesis, "milk," she said.
The major food allergens are milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans/shellfish, tree nuts, wheat and soy beans. But on a label the specific ingredient -- not the major category -- has to be listed. If a product has almonds, for example, it has to say "almonds" and not "tree nuts," Nagatoshi said.
» The fourth requirement is a responsibility statement, which "tells the consumer who is responsible for this product."
The name of the company, a street address, city, state and Zip code are required. A telephone number, Web site, e-mail address, etc., are "totally optional," Nagatoshi said.
If the manufacturer is listed in the current telephone directory, it can omit its street address, although listing the city, state and zip code is still required.
One question Nagatoshi frequently receives is why a nutritional facts panel is not found on every product.
Small businesses are not required to provide nutritional information, but they must file for a small business exemption in order to be exempted from that requirement, she said.
However, if any business makes certain nutritional claims -- such as sugar-free, fat-free, low salt, etc. -- it is required to have a nutritional fact panel to back the claim, she said.
For more information about labeling in general, Nagatoshi said to check the FDA's Web site, www.fda.gov.
Got a question or complaint?
Call 529-4773, fax 529-4750, or write to Kokua Line, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210, Honolulu 96813. As many as possible will be answered. E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
. See also: Useful phone numbers