Eating With Your Eyes Shut: The Deception of MSG & Other Additives
Take a look in your pantry and fridge. Put everything that can be reared, hunted, grown or gathered on one side. On the other side place all commercially processed food: any packets, tins, jars, deli or frozen items which list additives rather than natural foods only. Which pile is bigger?
Food additives are defined as substances added to food directly, or indirectly – such as due to packaging, storage or transportation. Over the course of a year most people consume thousands of these, up to a kilogram or more. While individual additives are officially tested, no one has yet determined what the side effects are in your body of their cumulative presence over time, or how they interact with each other.
Some people are sensitive to the MSG – or monosodium glutamate – flavour enhancer added to food. It is used to trick the receptors on the tongue into registering a high degree of savoury oomph or meatiness. In this way a packet of chicken soup can contain very little chicken but its effect will appear magnified. Added to many snack and processed foods, MSG is often hidden on labels by using deceptively worded terms.
MSG (and artificial sweeteners such as aspartame) can be classified as an ‘excitotoxin’. Its core component – the amino acid ‘glutamic acid’- is also a neurotransmitter that your brain, eyes, ears, pancreas and nervous system use to initiate excitory processes. This can make the foods it is consumed in subconsciously more attractive (see my website TIPS page for Moods and Foods).
Nerve cells can be damaged and killed by excess glutamate (or glutamic acid) when their receptors become over activated. Excitotoxicity may be involved with stroke, multiple sclerosis, autism, ALS, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, fibromyalgia, tinnitus, and Alzheimer’s.
Some people are particularly sensitive to its intake, particularly those with asthma. The Mayo Clinic website lists the following associated symptoms: headache; flushing; sweating; sense of facial pressure or tightness; numbness, tingling or burning around the mouth; rapid, fluttering heartbeat (palpitation); chest pain; shortness of breath. Nausea, drowsiness and weakness are also reported. For some people high levels in the body can return to baseline 3 hours after consumption (often termed ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’). Others experience the consequences as chronic (sometimes misdiagnosed) conditions with good days and bad that are challenging to correlate as to cause and effect (contact this office for an allergy test).
The tendency to MSG sensitivity has been linked to suboptimal Liver function; low levels of B6, B12 and Magnesium; Alcohol use (TIPS); and poor blood sugar management (see my GOOD HEALTH SOLUTIONS’ report: You Are Just A Few Steps Away From Peak Vitality).
Semantic Puzzles for the Unwary
As an amino acid – a building block of protein – glutamate is found naturally in Protein (TIPS) containing plant and animal foods. Especially high sources are parmesan cheese, seaweed, peas and mushrooms. The human body also produces its own glutamate. Glutamate is found in foods in two forms. One is ‘bound’ or linked to other amino acids in a chain to form a protein molecule. The other form is ‘free’ glutamate which is not linked to a protein. Only free glutamate can be used as a flavour enhancer. Foods such as tomatoes and mushrooms are often used for flavouring due to their high levels of naturally occurring free glutamate.
High tech processes are used to cheaply produce commercial grade free glutamic acid. It is made from fermented, acid or enzyme treated starches such as corn to break down its protein content into isolated amino acids. Or genetically modified bacteria may be fed selected nutrients to secrete glutamic acid through their cell walls. Just as highly refined white sugar is not the same as the natural sugar in fresh fruit, so is manufactured glutamate very different in properties and function to the form found in say, a tomato.
Any product which contains MSG must list this or its numerical equivalent: food additive “621”. However all numbers from 620 to 625 indicate some form of commercial glutamate. Since some consumers are alert to the ‘unsavouriness’ associated with monosodium glutamate (a salt form of glutamate) food manufacturers have aimed for what in the industry is called “clean labels”. In other words those free of worrying facts. This is easily done as there are many sources of manufactured glutamate whose terms suggest no link to their true origins. In contrast, most companies are forthcoming if you phone and make enquiries. Ask as to the ‘free glutamic acid’ content of a food product.
One hard-to-guess MSG equivalent is ‘autolysed yeast extract’ (not plain, natural yeast) such as in Marmite, Vegemite, Bovril, Oxo, seasoning cubes, many dry herb and spice salt blends. Another is ‘hydrolised plant/vegetable protein’ such as used in most packet and tinned soups, sauces, stews, frozen meals and desserts, processed meats, pies, chips, baking and snack foods. Breaking down protein into constituent amino acids (or starches into sugars) by adding enzymes or acids, is called autolysis or hydrolysis. These processes can create glutamates and contaminant by-products such as the carcinogenic chloropropanols.
Also very common are similarly hydrolised food additives such as citric acid (an acidity regulator usually made from corn not citrus), dextrose and maltodextrin (sweeteners processed from starches). These are made from a variety of foods such as corn, wheat, cane sugar and potato. This then puts all processed foods of a sweet or starchy nature under scrutiny as well. Yet a manufacturer is allowed to place “No MSG” on the label when the product could contain its equivalent in the form of several sources of manufactured free glutamic acid. This is legally accurate but ethically questionable.
Food manufacturers though are not cackling sociopaths eager to do you harm. Trained technologists and government officials have approved these products within the blinkered scope of Newtonian, chemical science (see TIPS for The Person Next To You May Live In A Different Universe – How This Relates to Cancer, Modern Medicine and What You Spread On Your Toast). Each individual additive can seem harmless in isolation – it’s just that no one eats them that way. Read labels and substantially eat real food: something that feeds from or grows in earth or sea rather than a test tube.
The following ingredients when listed on labels ALWAYS indicate MSG, or its equivalent, manufactured free glutamic acid:
autolysed plant protein
gelatine magnesium glutamate sodium caseinate
autolysed yeast glutamate monoammonium glutamate
glutamic acid monopotassium glutamate
hydrolised plant protein monosodium glutamate
numbers 620 – 625
These ingredients on labels OFTEN indicate the presence of commercial free glutamic acid:
citric acid flavours pectin
barley/rice malt corn syrup/starch/flour flowing agents
soy sauce (if not
dry milk solids malt extract
food starch whey
enzyme modified or