Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is a flavor enhancer that is best known as an additive in Chinese food, but in reality it is added to many processed foods. MSG is a salt of the amino acid glutamic acid, but it is the glutamate form as it is used in our foods. And it just so happens that high glutamate in the brain can turn out to be a very bad thing for cognition, emotions and behaviors – in children and adults alike, causing all kinds of fireworks and dysfunction. Let me explain how MSG damages your brain!
High glutamate in the brain can be excitatory, meaning it causes over activation of neurons (or nerve cells). While we want our neurological system to be alert and efficient, if it becomes over excited the effect is negative. Excitotoxins are substances that can excite a cell to the point where it becomes damaged or can even die. Given that there are glutamate receptors in the brain, it is clear that eating MSG can overexcite brain cells to the point of death, too. That is not a scenario that anyone would want, let alone someone already struggling with neurological issues such as autism or ADHD.
Abnormalities in glutamate receptors have been associated with many neurological diseases including Huntington’s chorea, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, behavioral disorders, psychiatric disorders and autistic-spectrum disorders. MSG and aspartame can also be very damaging to the developing brain in utero and in children.
Why do food producers put MSG in foods? Because it tricks the taste receptors into thinking that the food has more flavor, is more tender and is more enjoyable; therefore, we’ll eat more of it. It also costs less to produce, as they do not need to actually produce a higher quality food; they mask poor quality food with MSG to make it seem better quality. Also, MSG triggers the pancreas to produce insulin, which causes blood sugar to drop and makes us feel hungry again an hour later.
The producers of MSG are aware, of course, that their product has a bad reputation, so in order to circumvent the decline in its use, they change the way it’s labeled!! Here is a list of foods that can contain MSG:
- yeast extract
- autolyzed yeast
- modified food starch
- textured vegetable protein
- hydrolyzed soy protein
- soy concentrate or isolate
- natural flavor broth
Some personal care products, such as skin care and hair care products as well as many sunscreens and insect repellants, may also contain MSG.
Aspartame has a similar mechanism. It acts as an excitotoxin, damaging the brain cells and potentially killing the brain cells. It can also be converted to glutamate and bind with the same receptors that MSG can bind with.
From a dietary standpoint, one of the easiest ways to avoid exposure to MSG and aspartame is to eat whole, unprocessed foods. A diet rich in vegetables, healthy fats and lean proteins will naturally not contain MSG (although some foods have naturally-occurring glutamate, such as soy sauce, parmesan cheese, walnuts, peas, seaweed and mushrooms). Once you start eating out a lot, especially at Asian restaurants, and buying packaged/convenience foods, then you’re more susceptible to exposure. Vegetarians have to watch out, too, since MSG can be hidden in “vegetable proteins” that are often substituted for meats. And of course, diet sodas containing aspartame are OUT!
Supplementally, GABA can counter the effects of excess glutamate, and help restore balance to the brain.
A great source of information on this topic is Russell Blaylock’s book Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills and his website www.russellblaylockmd.com.
MSG and aspartame are definitely additives to be avoided. They can cause serious fireworks in the brain, leading to erratic behavior, unbalanced emotional states and deficits in cognitive function – nothing any of us want!