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Breaking Bad Pretzels

November 7, 2013

Last night I finally caved in and started watching Breaking Bad. Good stuff.

So now I’ve got chemistry on the mind. Things like compounds. And some of those that may not be the best for human consumption. But that doesn’t stop people hell bent on their own self destruction.

I’m not going to argue the science and safety of artificial sweeteners. Some smart people will tell you that they’ve been on the market for years, and that they are perfectly safe. But I see no reason to fool my body that it’s getting sugar when it’s not. Plus, I can’t stand the taste.

The food that comes into our home is well inspected. But even though I’m fastidious about reading the ingredients of products I purchase, somehow one slipped through the cracks. And it was most unexpected.

Somewhere in my ancient memory I recall products with artificial sweeteners having labels on the front of the package. Although now that I think about it, that was most likely a marketing message and not an ingredient disclosure.

More along the lines of, “Now with NutraSweet®” rather than, “Artificially Sweetened.”

That’s probably because once upon a time, food manufacturers used artificial sweeteners as a selling point for people on a diet. It was a shorthand to tell consumers that this product had fewer calories, and thus by some measures was more virtuous to consume.

Today, artificial sweeteners are much more insidious. They are simply being used as an inexpensive alternative to sugar. Effectively they are replacing the now vilified high fructose corn syrup. But what’s insidious is that these artificial sweeteners are going by new and not nearly as recognizable names.

That’s how this bag of Herr’s whole grain pretzel ribbons came into my life. You have probably figured out that I got more than I bargained for with this purchase. I’ll cut to the chase, and share with you the note I sent to Herr’s.

Recently I bought a bag of your whole grain pretzel ribbons. Eating healthful foods is important for me and my family, and I selected these based on their percentage of whole grain flour and the relatively high amount of dietary fiber per serving.

At the store, I scanned the ingredients list and did not see any of the ones I try to avoid (partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial flavors/colors).

Just this morning I tried one of these pretzels, and I detected in the back of my throat the unmistakable and unpleasant taste of artificial sweetener. How could this be?

So I went back to the ingredient list on the bag and realized there was one thing I had never seen before: Maltotame.

As you probably know, it is indeed an artificial sweetener made with Neotame. And it’s not something that I am comfortable feeding to my wife or children (all of whom have eaten these pretzels).

I’m concerned that the use of artificial sweeteners in this product isn’t more prominently called out anywhere on the package. I feel misled (and frankly tricked) into buying a product I would never have purchased. And I’m horribly upset that without knowing it I’ve put artificial sweeteners into the bodies of my children.

As a rule, we do not waste food in this house. But this bag of pretzels is going straight into the trash.

Please, fix the labeling on your bags. Please do not continue to mislead consumers by omitting claims about the use of artificial sweeteners. And please consider going back to the natural high-quality ingredients that I have come to expect from your brand.

Thank you,
Daniel Berman

Even though Neotame got a thorough flogging on the internets a few years ago, even that wasn’t on my radar as an artificial sweetener. It’s a variation of aspartame, except it’s much much sweeter.

Had you been aware of and avoiding neotame, Maltotame® might have still passed under your radar. It is, “A dry, free-flowing blend of maltodextrin containing 2.5% neotame. An excellent replacement for 20% – 40% of sugars and/or HFCS in all applications.”

Why add maltodextrin to neotame? Well, it may not be entirely sinister. It sounds like it makes neotame easier to use in the production of foodstuffs. However, by effectively renaming a controversial ingredient, you get the added side benefit of being able to use an inexpensive sugar substitute without the public backlash.

So Herr’s sent me some coupons in the mail, which was nice, to replace the bag of pretzels that quite literally left a bad taste in my mouth. But they also sent an entirely unsatisfying letter in return.

Thank you for contacting our company. We are always pleased to hear from our customers.

I will certainly pass your suggestion on to our R&D department.

Enclosed, you will find complimentary coupons which we hope you will use to purchase your favorite Herr’s snacks.

We look forward to serving you in the future, and want to thank you for your continued confidence and support.


I’m not entirely convinced it’s the R&D department that needs to hear what I have to say. I think it might be marketing, or maybe even legal. I’ve sat in brand meetings where the in-house counsel really shaped product marketing development by insisting on what could or could not be said or implied. At the time it was really frustrating, but that little tidbit of knowledge could come in handy here.

Let’s just say that I think a little additional follow up is needed on my part. If I ever hear anything back, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, I’m going to cross my fingers and hope that Herr’s hasn’t adulterated my favorite salt and vinegar potato chips with artificial sweeteners. Because that would be truly tragic.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 7, 2013 11:32 am

    Heisenberg, on Breaking Bad, would find a way to turn those pretzels into some kind of payload that would make a more effective message. Since you’re already about to go around the bend with Herr’s I think you should stop watching the show before you get any ideas.

    Anyway, as a former ad man you should beating Utz (the brand that built Don Draper’s agency), not Herr’s.

  2. Buck permalink
    November 7, 2013 12:03 pm

    I eat low carb for medical reasons and as a result I’ve learnt to scour ingredient lists. It’s disappointing to find yet another way food labels aren’t clear and easy to understand. Did you know that the label can read ‘0g Sugar’ if there is less than .5g per serving size? Carbohydrate counts are worked out via some byzantine process involving burning and measuring the ash left behind… It’s enough to drive one to eat only locally grown food and avoid packages altogether.

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