Excitotoxins: The dark side of flavor


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On a trip to the grocery store, you will find no shortage of products “bursting with flavor.” There’s sweet, salty and then there are the products that have the salty-sweet combination down to a sublimely satisfying taste experience. 

Ninety percent of the items in grocery stores are pre-packaged and processed, made by food manufacturers aspiring to win over your taste buds and to have you coming back for more. No need to suffer bland foods while watching the waistline when you can have the all of the flavor with none of the fat or calories. How is it possible that we can enjoy double-fudge desserts, potato chips and cheesy lasagna without the guilt?

Enter flavor enhancers, or excitotoxins, the name given to a class of additives devised by lab scientists who are employed by food companies to create excitement, texture and flavor to foods, particularly low-fat, low-calorie foods. The most common flavor enhancer is monosodium glutamate — aka MSG, which is in aspartame and more than 70 other ingredients commonly found on most food labels.


Your brain on MSG

MSG messes with the delicate balance of a neurotransmitter in the brain called glutamate. Glutamate is naturally occurring and necessary, but when MSG or any of its cronies are consumed, they push the level of glutamate in the blood to a toxic level, causing a flood of calcium, fatty acids and chemicals called free radicals into the cells. 

The affected cells become so excited and so frenzied that they signal a suicide response in the cells and they die (hence the name excitotoxin). Perhaps this is more information than you cared to know, but the ingenuity and complexity of the machine that is our body is awe-inspiring!

So what’s a few brain cells, right? In addition to potential brain damage, these additives also disrupt the hypothalamus, which controls numerous autonomic activities, including the thyroid, endocrine functions, sleep/wake cycle, hunger and satiety. 

Research suggests that MSG disrupts the release of the hormone leptin that tells us that we are full. This explains why sometimes we can pig out endlessly on those chips and not necessarily feel full. It is also this disruption that leads to the hypothesis that these additive-filled foods are contributing to the obesity epidemic, particularly in children.

MSG is also suspected to contribute to — or exacerbate — an ever-growing list of illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis, dementia, Alzheimer’s, chronic fatigue syndrome and chronic migraines. MSG is so toxic that consumption by infants can result in lifelong intellectual impairment, and yet it continues to show up in baby foods and formulas. 

As previously mentioned, MSG has more than 70 aliases and it is up to you as the consumer to become familiar with them and to read your labels, especially if you suffer from chronic illness or pain. Aside from MSG consumption, excessive glutamate occurs in reaction to head trauma and is the reason for the such symptoms as delayed thoughts, memory, and motor impairment and slurred speech.


So what to do? 

The best defense against these nasty chemicals is to eat as cleanly as possible. Avoid foods that come in containers, increase your intake of whole and fresh foods, and meals prepared by you at home. Instead of bottled dressings and sauces, experiment with a variety of herbs and oils which often contain vital nutrients. The more you do this, the less room you have in your belly and in your life for the other stuff! 

Dining out? Opt for oil and vinegar or balsamic dressing over ranch or other creamy sauces, as these and other condiments are common hiding places for MSGs. Ask for the sauces that come with meat or fish to be put on the side so as to reduce consumption of these toxins. Lastly, take the time to familiarize yourself with those other names for MSG so you can make an informed decision about whether to buy that product. 


Samantha is a licensed professional counselor and certified health coach with more than 12 years experience in the behavioral health field. She recently expanded her education to include nutrition, solidifying a holistic view of wellness. She is passionate about sharing her knowledge and empowering people to make informed choices about their food and health.