What if I told you there is a common flavoring substance added to your food that can cause physical, mental and emotional disturbances in you and your children? What if I told you that this substance is added not only to adult but also to baby food? Finally, what if I told you that despite countless scientific studies attesting to the dangers of this food additive, the FDA has done nothing to ban its use?

The substance I am referring to is MSG (monosodium glutamate). It is commonly added to soups, sauces and meats as a flavor enhancer. In many processed foods, MSG is preferentially added to mask off-flavors and odors. In lieu of MSG, food manufacturers might add the following substances that are also high in glutamate (the business end of MSG): hydrolyzed/autolyzed yeast extract, protein isolate, natural flavor, disodium guanylate/inosinate, protein concentrate, E621 (E620-E625 are all free glutamates), modified food starch and chicken/vegetable broth. Food manufacturers often add alternative forms of glutamate so that they can advertise their foods as being “MSG-free” even though technically they are not.

There are several issues with MSG. To begin with, the substance is well-known to be an appetite stimulant. As early as 1976, Dr. Bunyan and his research colleagues were using MSG to induce obesity in mice. More recently, a study conducted in rural China reports that villagers who prepared their meals with MSG were three times more likely to become obese than villagers who did not use this agent.

But the story doesn’t stop there. Many unsuspecting restaurant-goers have experienced what is commonly referred to as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” – a condition whereby the victim undergoes shortness of breath, heart palpitations, severe headache/migraine and swelling of the throat/face. In some cases, this condition becomes so severe that it requires hospitalization. The National Institutes of Health provides a detailed description of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome/MSG Syndrome here.

Why would MSG, or rather the sodium salt of glutamate, lead to such extreme physical problems? After all, glutamate (or its acidic form glutamic acid) is merely an amino acid and amino acids are natural products required by the body. Furthermore, glutamate is naturally found in meats, vegetables, cheeses, etc. So what’s the big deal?

Glutamate is a Powerful Neurotransmitter

While glutamate can be ingested without any overt physical reaction if it is part of a food like meat, the substance can be very dangerous when added to food in its free-form state. In such a state glutamate enters the bloodstream almost immediately, targeting the brain and central nervous system (CNS) and causing extremely adverse reactions. This is because glutamate is not only an amino acid; it is likewise a powerful neurotransmitter.

In the body, glutamate is normally found in very small and controlled levels. However, when added in its free-form state, it can wreak havoc on the brain and spinal cord. It can even go so far as to cause excitotoxicity in the neurons, meaning it literally excites those neurons to death.

Glutamate is an Excitotoxin

There is a lot of scientific evidence pointing to glutamate being a dangerous excitotoxin. In 1967, Dr. John Olney published a report wherein he injected MSG into the retina of newborn mice and essentially destroyed their eyes. These same mice became obese and experienced stunted growth and reproductive issues. Such problems resulted because the injected MSG destroyed the hypothalamus of these mice, a brain region responsible for control of endocrine functions like body weight and reproduction.

Another study showed how pregnant rats that received MSG in their drinking water later gave birth to pups that were not only obese but also had trouble with learning exercises. Meanwhile, young rats exposed to MSG exhibited a strange case of self-mutilation and chewed on their own tails.

Higher order mammals are also sensitive to the damaging effects of MSG. When Dr. John Olney applied MSG to newborn rhesus monkeys and later examined their brains, he was shocked to find significant damage to the hypothalamus. Also, the level of brain damage was found to be inversely proportional to the animal’s age; in essence, the younger the animal, the more brain damage that resulted from MSG exposure.

This suggests that young children are especially sensitive to MSG and should avoid it at all costs. Unfortunately, kids’ snacks and cereals are often loaded with MSG and free-form glutamate in order to encourage higher consumption of these items. Likewise, fast food restaurants notoriously “spice” children’s meals with glutamate-containing substances in an effort to make the food tastier.

The Baby Food Fiasco

In the 1970’s, food manufacturers voluntarily removed MSG from baby food; however, it was replaced with free-form glutamate containing substances like autolyzed yeast extract and soy protein isolate. This was done so that babies, who are notoriously fussy when it comes to eating, would find their food appetizing. Parents were relieved to see their babies eating and baby food sales increased. It seemed like a win-win situation all around – except when considering the future health of the babies.

Increased rates of autism, ADD and hyperactivity in our children have raised the question of whether these maladies are the result of food additives. If the aforementioned animal studies are any indication, food additives like MSG and free-form glutamate could be causing the rising mental and behavioral issues noted in kids today. However, the FDA continues to assure us that MSG causes “no adverse effects” in animal tests- aside from the brain lesions evidenced in rodent studies. And yet, even the FDA admits that MSG leads to Chinese Restaurant Syndrome in some MSG-sensitive individuals.

What Can You Do?

Rather than wait for the FDA to finally authorize testing of MSG and free-form glutamate, take steps now to avoid your exposure to these potentially dangerous food additives.

  • While grocery shopping, check food labels carefully for the inclusion of MSG or free-form glutamate additives like autolyzed yeast and/or protein extract.
  • Buy more fresh food as opposed to food that’s been pickled, fermented or canned.
  • Don’t let your children just throw salty and/or flavored snacks into the grocery cart until you’ve been able to examine the ingredients and judge that the food is safe.
  • When eating out, avoid fast-food and chain restaurants which habitually add MSG and/or free-form glutamate additives to their food.
  • Cook more of your meals at home, where you can better control what flavorings and spices are added.
  • When you do eat out, don’t be afraid to pester the server or chef about what additives are present in your family’s meals. Keep in mind that many broth-based soups, sauces, dressings, gravies, breadings and seasonings are laced with MSG and free-form glutamate. If need be, have the server bring the spice shaker or flavoring agent to the table. After reading through the listed ingredients, you’ll instantly know if your food is carrying MSG and/or free-form glutamate. Although this tactic may seem embarrassing, it is better to be embarrassed and safe than polite and sorry later.