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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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