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The Ubiquitous MSG: How to know if you’re eating an excitotoxin

Have you ever had stomach cramps, indigestion, or gas after eating Chinese take-out? Do you wonder why it’s so hard to stop eating Doritos once you’ve started munching? Do you suffer from frequent migraine headaches? If so, you may be one of millions of Americans that share allergic sensivitiy to a common food additive, monosodium glutamate.

Chinese buffet restaurants often use MSG in their foods, which gave the list of symptoms its name: Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS). Yet, this excitotoxin can be found hidden in the majority of restaurant and home processed foods .

Monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG, is a flavor enhancer composed of the salt of the “non-essential human amino acid”, L-glutamic acid. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which are the building blocks of our bodies. Essential amino acids are those that must be obtained through the diet, because the body cannot synthesize them on its own. Non-essential amino acids, on the other hand, are not a dietary requirement because the body is able to produce them as needed. L-glutamic acid is composed of glutamate, which is both a “key molecule in cellular metabolism” and the “most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter in the mammalian nervous system.”

Excitatory is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Online Medical Dictionary as that which “tend[s] to induce excitation (as of a neuron)”. Excitation is further defined as “the disturbed or altered condition resulting from arousal of activity (as by neural or electrical stimulation) in an individual organ or tissue”. So, as an excitatory neurotransmitter, it’s job is to chemically-stimulate the neurons into firing in an excited state.  If you think of neurons firing, each signal that is fired is like a key and it goes out across the synapse until it hits its receptor, the lock.  This process goes on trillions of times per day.

The neurotransmitter glutamate is believed to be involved in memory and learning in the brain, and is known to be key in the removal of nitrogen waste in the body (air is approximately 78% nitrogen and nitrogen is a key component in amino acids). Glutamate naturally occurs (called free glutamates) in meats, tomatoes, dairy products, eggs, mushrooms and sea vegetables like Kombu (seaweed) and can be assimilated quite easily by the body.  However, large amounts of glutamate in the system can be problematic as it disrupts the delicate balance in the brain between neurotransmitters that tell the neurons to fire and those that tell the neurons to stop firing.

As an excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate tells the neuron to fire and keep firing. If too much glutamate is in the blood, the neurons continue to fire leading to an overactivation of receptors in the brain which receive the messages. This leads to a condition known as excitoxicity, which can frequently result in damage to neurons. Excitotoxins like glutamate have been linked to more serious health problems, such as stroke, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis (to name a few). Another excitotoxin related to MSG is aspartame, better known as Nutrasweet or Equal.

The common American trade name for man-made MSG is Accent, which can be found in nearly all supermarkets across the country, as well as in its generic form, monosodium glutamate.   The ubiquitousness of MSG is nowhere more apparent, however, than in restaurants and in packaged, processed foods available at the grocery store. Just look – it is in everything.  Don’t stop reading just yet, though, or you’ll probably not even see it.  Because of rising health concerns and related health incidents involving the overconsumption of MSG, product manufacturers have become quite efficient at hiding monosodium glutamate in a surprisingly large amount of products, including those labeled as “No MSG” or “No MSG added”.  They do this because of a loophole created by the FDA, which requires that the label list “monosodium glutamate” in the ingredients only if it is an added ingredient.  Some of the ingredients listed on the label, however, may contain MSG as an ingredient, but that does not have to be listed because, at that point, MSG is a constituent of an ingredient, not the ingredient itself.

The truth is, MSG can be found in a number of different ingredients and can be recognized by a list of names, including the most common: yeast extract, hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed protein and disodium inosinate. If you read your food labels, chances are high that you will find one of these ingredients listed.   Don’t stop there, however, “seasonings”, “spice”, soy sauce, protein isolate, textured protein, carageenan, Worcestershire sauce, “natural flavors”, and even malted barley all contain MSG. I challenge you to open your pantry and search for any of these ingredients. Chances are, you expose yourself and your family to this excitotoxin many times each and every day and you aren’t even aware of it. Furthermore, if you eat out alot, your chances are very high that you consume large amounts of MSG. For an extensive list of items that contain MSG, click here and here.

The widespread use of MSG in processed foods can make avoiding it very difficult. On the other hand, ignorance about MSG and its effects on the human body might be a large contributor to the many growing health problems Americans suffer from, including our nation’s epidemic obesity. MSG has been linked to cardiac, circulatory, gastrointestinal, muscular, neurological, visual, respiratory, urological and skin problems, including: arrhythmia, angina, palpitations, swelling, diarrhea, irritable bowel, rectal bleeding, joint pain and stiffness, depression, light-headedness, anxiety, mental confusion, hyperactivity, attention deficit, insomnia, seizures, blurred vision, asthma, chest pain, swelling of the prostate, hives, mouth sores and bags under the eyes. For a more complete list of these symptoms, click here.

Some of these symptoms, like headaches, anxiety and asthma, I suffered from quite frequently before I became more conscious of my diet and began eating all natural, organic whole foods.  Many times, I didn’t know the cause of my suffering and took over-the-counter medications to ease my discomfort. Yet, as they say, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” By avoiding MSG, I have personally found that I suffer from fewer migraines and asthma.  It is quite possible that MSG, acting as an excitotoxin, was responsible for much of my previous discomfort. I was absolutely astonished at how many foods I was eating that contained one form or another of MSG, even those foods labeled “natural” and deemed more healthy alternatives.  I rarely eat out, but I will occasionally eat something at a restaurant and suffer some ill effects because of it. My first suspicion is always that MSG is the culprit.  It’s in the sauces, the marinades, the guacamole, the parmesan, the salad dressing and croutons …

If you suffer from any of the above symptoms and health issues and suspect that MSG might be the cause, you can very easily change your diet to determine this. Just be careful to watch out for all of the ingredients that like to hide MSG in them.

For more information, visit:

Truth in Labeling.org

MSGMyth.com

MSGTruth.org

Also see:

Campbell’s Selects Soup (“No MSG” means they still add “spice extract” and “yeast extract” – both containing glutamate)

Soup Base (states MSG “naturally occurs” in yeast extract and hydrolyzed proteins)

Disodium guanylate entry at Wikipedia (if you see this food listed, it’s because MSG exists somewhere else in the ingredients)

Health Dangers.com

 
 

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That Chemical Cocktail is Killing You: More on Bisphenol-A

A health-conscious consumer has a difficult time avoiding the ever-growing chemical cocktail of food additives and preservatives these days. One particular chemical, Bisphenol-A (or BPA, for short), has been getting quite a lot of bad press lately.

BPA is a synthesized organic compound (far different from the “organic” label you find on certain foods), which has been “suspected of being hazardous to humans since the 1930’s”, but has only recently gained the attention from healthy-food advocates, scientists and medical doctors that it deserves. It is synthesized from acetone (the main ingredient in nail polish remover and paint thinner) and phenol (a known antiseptic also found in Chloraseptic, whose scent is also known as the “hospital smell”), and is used in the production of certain plastics, especially polycarbonate plastics, as well as water bottles, baby bottles, medical supplies, lenses and as a plastic lining in many canned goods.

Bayer, DOW and G.E. are some of the biggest producers of BPA, producing most of the United States’ one million tons of BPA in 2004.

Bisphenol-A has been shown to have negative health effects, acting as an endocrine disruptor and hormone mimicker. Because BPA can mimic hormones such as estrogen at a very low dose, scientists are worried about the bioaccumulative and extended exposure effects of this chemical on developing adolescents. Already, some studies are drawing links between BPA and breast cancer, obesity, “fetal and infant brain development and activity”, decline in testosterone, and increase in prostate size and cancer.

A study performed by the Center for Disease Control, between 1988 and 1994, found BPA in 95% of the urine samples it tested from adults. Another study in 2003 and 2004 confirmed those results, finding BPA in 93% of the samples taken from adults and children. Studies have also shown that BPA can cross the placenta and become concentrated in the developing fetus.

Given the rise in prevalence of prostate and breast cancer, as well as behavioral and developmental issues in children in recent years, it seems prudent to call for a moratorium in the use of this chemical until more is learned regarding its safety.

In the meantime, health advocates suggest limiting your exposure to all plastics, canned soft drinks, and canned tomatoes. In my household, we own a water filtration unit to avoid purchasing bottled water, and we store the water in reused one-gallon glass apple juice jugs. We never heat foods up in plastic, and we do not ever use a microwave. We also avoid soft drinks, canned beer, and buy jarred tomatoes when available. In addition, we only rarely eat out (you never know what foods or additives restaurants use) and instead cook fresh, wholesome, organic meals at home. Finally, we changed all of our cleaning products and personal hygiene products to further reduce the chemical cocktail we are exposed to.

Water bottles like those above often leach BPA

Water bottles like these above often leach Bisphenol-A, an estrogen mimicking chemical responsible for a variety of negative health effects.

Anxieties in a Bottle (or a Can)

U.S. News & World Report, Deborah Kotz
Published September 29, 200

When it comes to household health risks, baby bottles made of hard plastic may already be on your radar screen. But how about canned tomatoes and soft drinks? These, too, contain the worrisome chemical bisphenol A–it’s found in the substance that coats the inner surfaces of metal cans. And some adults, like infants, may be in harm’s way. A landmark study of more than 1,400 adults, published in last week’s Journal of the American Medical Association, found that those with the most BPA in their urine had nearly three times the risk of heart disease and more than twice the risk of diabetes as those who had the lowest levels. “Even those with the highest BPA levels still had levels way below the currently established ‘safe’ level,” says study coauthor David Melzer of the University of Exeter in England.

While the report doesn’t prove that BPA causes these diseases, it adds strength to previous laboratory findings: One study found that elevated BPA levels trigger an excessive release of insulin in mice, enough to lead to prediabetes. Another, on human fat cells, found that BPA suppresses the release of a heart-protective hormone.

Babies are still thought to be more at risk than adults. Through bottles and formula, they get more BPA exposure on a per-pound basis, says Sarah Janssen, a physician and science fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council. They also can’t metabolize the chemical as quickly, so it accumulates in their bodies, which may pose problems for fragile developing organ systems. The government’s National Toxicology Program recently concluded that there’s enough evidence to express “some concern” over BPA’s detrimental effects on a child’s brain and reproductive organs.

Still in use. So why is BPA still allowed in food packaging? While consumer groups have issued calls to ban it, the Food and Drug Administration has declined to do so, declaring last month that “products containing BPA currently on the market are safe and that exposure levels … are below those that may cause health effects.” This decision astounded environmental health activists who accused the FDA of relying on only two studies, both funded by plastic manufacturers, out of more than 700 that have been published.

There’s talk in Congress of overriding the FDA policy by passing laws to restrict the use of BPA. Industry representatives, however, argue this isn’t the solution: “Acidic foods will corrode the metal of cans, so you have to have a coating in there,” says Steven Hentges, a chemist and BPA expert with the American Chemistry Council, a trade group. “Finding an alternative liner that works as well and is safer would not be easy.”

Some companies, though, have already responded to consumer demand. Born Free makes plastic, BPA-free baby bottles, CamelBak recently switched over its water bottles, and Eden Foods cans its beans with a plant-based liner. People can also substitute beverages, soups, and vegetables packaged in glass or cardboard containers for those packed in cans, says Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group. She also recommends using powdered infant formula instead of ready-to-serve liquid. A recent report from EWG found that the former contains less BPA.

Related Post:

The Body Burden: Toxic Chemicals in our Bodies

Also See:

The Environmental Working Group – www.ewg.org

Scientific American – Plastic (Not) Fantastic: Food Containers Leach a Potentially Harmful Chemical

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2008 in Health & Wellness

 

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