The third most used flavor enhancer in North American food, after salt and pepper, is a drug. Glutamic acid, most commonly found in the form monosodium glutamate (MSG) is classified as a food additive by both the Health Canada and the US Food and Drug Administration. It is actually drug-like in its effects, despite attempts by both government and industry to convince us otherwise.
Everyone is susceptible to the toxic effects of glutamates. Glutamate is the most common neurotransmitter in the brain; that is, it is responsible for transporting chemical signals from neuron to neuron. To do this job, glutamate is rapidly released in minute quantities and then rapidly re-absorbed. If there is a high level of glutamates in the bloodstream, glutamate can enter the brain and cause the neurons to misfire, causing physical and psychological problems, and in extreme cases, permanent damage.
An MSG reaction is usually associated with oriental food, but reactions are also caused by many western foods like fried chicken and hamburgers. This is not an allergic reaction. Some people are more sensitive to the effects of MSG and react even to small amounts, but everyone will react to a high enough dose. Sensitivity also increases with age, stress and many diseases. Since the level of MSG in our food has doubled every decade since 1948, there is a greater chance of a glutamate overdose.
Glutamate is found in many foods in a natural protein-bound form. It is important in the enjoyable flavor of tomatoes, aged cheese and mushrooms. It is most notably found in a seaweed sauce used for centuries in Japanese cuisine, and it is from this seaweed that monosodium glutamate was first purified and identified as the active ingredient which gave the seaweed its potency.
Since its discovery in 1908 by a Japanese scientist, MSG has become widespread in its use in oriental cooking. The use of MSG became common in North America after a 1948 conference. At this conference, all major US food companies learned about the ability of this food additive to downplay unpleasant tastes in foods, especially frozen and canned foods, and enhance pleasant tastes.
The Glutamate Association, a multi-million-dollar lobbying group of a multi-billion-dollar food industry, says that glutamates are glutamates; the chemical additives are metabolized no differently than the natural glutamates present in foods, and therefore MSG is safe for the general population. The difference though, is availability.
So What’s the Difference?
The natural glutamates from food and the chemical additives do go through the same metabolic processes after they are absorbed from the intestines. However, natural glutamates are bound with proteins, so they are digested and absorbed slowly. Glutamate additives are free glutamates, completely unattached to any other protein. They are easily and quickly absorbed and cause a spike in blood levels of glutamate. Both glutamate and its close cousin aspartate, the active ingredient in the sweetener aspartame, are powerful free radical generators. In the whole, unprocessed form, the glutamate is accompanied by natural antioxidants that counteract its free radical effects.
Glutamate and aspartate have been shown to have a synergistic effect, and together they increase the chances of problems with the nervous system. Young children are more susceptible to these chemicals, because they have incomplete myelin sheathing on their nerves. This sheathing protects nerves from damage. Children usually need a smaller dose of any drug for it to be toxic. This can be a problem, since lunch meat, fast food and other foods popular with children can be high in MSG, and the pop they drink with it can contain aspartate.
There is evidence that behavioral problems in children previously thought to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or emotional problems might be caused at least in part by the glutamates in their diet. There have been numerous cases of children thought to be “problem” children undergoing a remarkable change when MSG is eliminated from their diet.
Well Worth the Effort
There is more and more evidence that MSG causes memory and learning loss, obesity, behavioral disturbances, hormone changes, stunted bodies, seizures and infertility, severe asthma attacks, heart irregularities, mood swings, depression and paranoia. There is also a great deal of evidence that glutamates and aspartate are a contributing factor to the development of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
Sensitivity to MSG can be difficult to diagnose because the time lag between a meal heavy with MSG and the onset of the reaction can vary, as well as the symptoms. The symptoms can include a mild flushing of the face and neck; a mimic of a heart attack or stroke; an asthma attack; a migraine headache; seizures; hyperactivity and behavior problems in children; depression or a stuffy nose. The problems can also be much more subtle and long term.
It can be very difficult to avoid MSG in your diet. Monosodium glutamate must be listed as such in the ingredients when it is added to food in that form, but it can also appear in low sodium foods with the name monopotassium glutamate. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein, or hydrolyzed plant protein, includes up to 20 percent free glutamate and aspartate. The hydrolyzation process frees glutamic acid and aspartic acid from the protein, and these act the same way as MSG on the brain. The hydrolyzed plant protein can legally be listed as natural flavorings or spices, so even “all natural” products might contain glutamates.
Some alternatives are to eat as fresh as possible; fresh food contains no additives. Some MSG-free soups, sauces and seasonings can be found in health food and organic food stores.
Use fresh lemon juice instead of MSG if a recipe calls for it and try making your own stock, soup, ketchup and sauces in large quantities and freezing them in single meal amounts.
What works well for some is to develop a group of friends in a food preparation network. All in the group prepare a large quantity of a single food on the weekend and exchange portions for the week. This can build a valuable community group as well as getting everyone good chemical-free food in an inexpensive manner.
It is the North American grab and run diet that contains the highest levels of MSG because the highest levels are found in fast foods and processed foods. Like the Romans poisoned their water supply with lead piping, we are poisoning our food with chemical “flavor enhancers.”