The Hidden Harms of Excitotoxins
Fair warning: If you are drinking a diet drink, munching on chicken-flavored crackers or enjoying a fast-food lunch while you’re reading this, odds are good that you’ll toss them out by the time you finish the article. Why? Because many low-calorie sodas, highly flavored snacks and processed foods of all kinds contain substances known as excitotoxins – substances that could very well be doing a serious number on your health.
Excitotoxin substances have long been used by food manufacturers to pump up the flavor of their products, and food manufacturers continue to insist they are safe. But in recent years, many health experts have regarded both excitotoxins and manufacturers’ assurances with increasing concern. Excitotoxins are a class of chemicals (usually amino acids) that overstimulate neuron receptors. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has put both aspartame and MSG on its list of food additives to avoid (for details, see http://www.cspinet.org/ additives).
Much recent research suggests that regularly consuming excitotoxins, like MSG and aspartame, over an extended period of time can destroy significant numbers of brain cells and lead to serious health problems, including seizures and strokes. According to Russell L. Blaylock, a neurosurgeon and author of Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills, excitotoxins have also been linked to human neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
The chemicals in excitotoxins stimulate the taste cells in the tongue, causing the flavor of the foods we eat to be greatly enhanced. Soups, snacks, sauces, gravies, many low-fat and vegetarian processed foods – manufacturers often pack them with “flavor enhancers” in an effort to make them taste irresistible.
Excitotoxins disguised – Ingredients to look out for
Although excitotoxin poisoning has gotten much of its recent publicity under the rather misleading title, “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” the fact is, American processed foods – from McDonald’s to Weight Watchers to Campbell’s soup – are just as likely to contain excitotoxins like mono-sodium glutamate (MSG) and aspartame (NutraSweet® or Equal®). And according to many experts, these same foods are just as often to blame for the headaches, water retention, skin problems and other health complaints that some consumers experience.
As a general rule, the more a food is processed, the more likely it is to contain MSG. Foods that commonly use MSG include potato chips, flavored crackers, canned soups, dry soup mixes, canned meats, diet foods, soy sauces, salad dressings, cured meats and poultry injected with broth. But reading the labels won’t always help you.
When a food product is 99 percent pure MSG it is called “monosodium glutamate” by the FDA and must be labeled as such. However, when a food product contains less than 99 percent MSG, the FDA doesn’t require that the MSG be identified. So it often appears on labels in various disguised forms, such as “hydrolyzed vegetable protein,” “spices” and “natural flavoring.” Here’s a quick list of potentially suspect ingredients to watch for (when in doubt, call the manufacturer to inquire).
* Ingredients that may contain 30 to 60 percent MSG: hydrolyzed vegetable protein; hydrolyzed protein; hydrolyzed plant protein; plant protein extract; sodium caseinate; calcium caseinate; yeast extract; textured protein; autolyzed yeast; hydrolyzed oat flour; Accent.
* Ingredients that may contain 12 to 40 percent MSG: malt extract; malt flavoring; bouillon; broth; stock; natural flavoring; natural beef or chicken flavoring; seasoning; spices.
Sources: FDA backgrounder #BG-9516 (available at http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~lrd/msg.html) and In Bad Taste: The MSG Syndrome, by George R. Schwartz, MD.
Are You Reacting to MSG?
Small amounts of MSG are found naturally in many common foods such as seaweed, mushrooms, whole grains, carrots, meat, nuts and cheese. In its natural state, however, MSG is slowly assimilated by the human body and broken down so that the levels of concentration are kept low. The MSG in processed foods, on the other hand, is highly concentrated. And when people eat these foods, says Blaylock, they unwittingly bombard their brain cells with excitotoxins in large enough quantities to cause real trouble.
If you eat a predominately healthy diet and you’re not particularly sensitive to MSG, then a can of soup that lists MSG as the last ingredient on the label may not cause you much trouble. But if you guzzle diet sodas every day and your idea of a snack is a chunk of MSG-laden sausage on an MSG-laden cracker, it might be a good idea to assess whether limiting or eliminating the excitotoxins in your diet will make you feel better.
George R. Schwartz, MD, author of In Bad Taste: The MSG Syndrome, believes there are three general categories of symptoms that result from MSG consumption:
Asthma, shortness of breath
Central (Brain) Symptoms
By Matthew Solan, Experience Life