Chemical Dependence

I had a conversation with someone I love very much and it went like this:

Me: “Please don’t eat ___! All of their food has MSG in it, and you know how bad that is!”

Loved one: “Yeah, but the food tastes soooo good.”

Me: “Does the food taste good, or does the MSG tell your brain the food tastes good?”

Loved one: Pause. “I don’t care, it still tastes good.”

This conversation was hard, but it also taught me that even today not everyone may be aware of MSG, its harmful effects and where it’s hidden. My mother in particular has a very very serious reaction when she encounters MSG, so much so that the last time she unknowingly ate it her eyes swelled shut because her face swelled so much. The reactions persist longer and become more and more severe. It was not a surprise to her when I glanced at some homemade seasonings from a friend of theirs and right in the ingredients list was “Monosodium glutamate”. That explained her in-explainable headaches after dinner time.

Like any highly controversial food additive (cough pink slime cough) there will be plenty of he-said she-said. There is no denying the money that goes into pre-packaged food products and specialty foods like low-sodium this and low-fat that. I find it hard to argue with a face with no visible eyes (poor mom!) but we are all free to make our own choices. Let’s get educated!

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

What is MSG?MSG is both natural and manufactured, and the freed glutamic acid is what is used as a food additive. It’s a nervous system stimulant also known as an excitotoxin (as is aspartame). The scientific description is a bit complicated for this blog, aminos, enzymes, catalytic converters and all…but here’s a snippet:

The reason food processors “free” glutamate from its bound form, is that it acts as a neurotransmitter in its free form.  The food industry’s claim that free glutamate is as harmless as bound glutamate is disingenuous at best.  If it was exactly the same, they wouldn’t need to hydrolyse vegetable protein (split the amino acids apart). From MSG Truth

Where is MSG?: Unfortunately, it’s just about everywhere and in everything in the SAD (Standard American Diet). Just a brief list, I’m sure none of these will surprise you;

  • McDonald’s
  • KFC (pretty much everything)
  • Burger King
  • Chick fil A
  • Nestle
  • Campbell’s (seriously, check a label)
  • Frito Lay
  • Planters
  • Kraft
  • Just about all Ranch-flavored dressings and dips
  • Doritos
  • Cheetos
  • Annie’s (YES!! All Cheddar Bunnies contain Yeast extract)
  • Gravys and sauces
  • Seasonings (Accent salt? 100% pure MSG, and good luck trying to find the 1 ingredient listed!)
  • Philadelphia Salmon Cream Cheese spread
  • Vaccines like chicken pox (Yes!)
  • Soy products (as if GMO contamination wasn’t enough)
  • Read more foods here
Pretty crazy huh? And that’s just a snippet! For a while I got a little crazy and whenever we went to the store, I snagged a product I used to eat and I would read the label. My favorite cracker in the world, Cheese Nips, yup, MSG. Would it surprise you to know that I suffered from headaches 90% of the time? I took so much ibuprofen that it ruined my stomach lining and it makes me intensely ill now. I can’t even take a pill that touches it.
So, there are sources that contain MSG in its natural form like parmesan cheese, and then there are products processed to intentionally free the glutamic acid. Then there’s the addictive properties; for instance cigarette manufacturers add ammonia which converts to glutamate in the brain (and it’s no wonder people struggle to quit!).
I know the following list is long, but print it out the next time you shop if you buy lots of prepackaged foods. Save yourself a headache or 80.
Names of ingredients that always contain processed freed glutamic acid:
  • Glutamic acid,  Glutamate
  • Monosodium glutamate
  • Monopotassium glutamate
  • Calcium glutamate
  • Monoammonium glutamate
  • Magnesium glutamate
  • Natrium glutamate
  • Yeast extract
  • Anything “hydrolyzed”
  • Any “hydrolyzed protein”
  • Calcium caseinate,  Sodium caseinate
  • Yeast food, Yeast nutrient
  • Autolyzed yeast
  • Gelatin
  • Textured protein
  • Soy protein, soy protein concentrate
  • Soy protein isolate
  • Whey protein, whey protein concentrate
  • Whey protein isolate
  • Anything “…protein”
  • Vetsin
  • Ajinomoto
Truth in Labeling also goes further to show foods that sometimes contain, and foods that are suspected to contain freed glutamic acid. See the chart here. Low fat, no fat, reduced sodium, natural flavors…all signals that the food probably doesn’t taste that super without a little help. Disodium guanylate and disodium inosinate are relatively expensive food additives that work synergistically with inexpensive MSG (and I found disodium guanylate in veggie burgers-along with other nasty stuff). These “health foods” give real food a bad name, hence the ever increasing use of the term “whole food” or “real food” when referring to diets where the use of any processed foods is limited.
Why is MSG bad?: Studies have linked MSG to the following:
  • Headaches
  • Depress serum concentrations of growth hormone
  • Enhanced glucose-induced insulin secretion
  • Subtle behavioral aberrations in late adulthood
  • Weakness
  • Muscle tightness
  • Obesity
  • Allergies
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Depression
  • Seborrheic dermatitis
  • Diseases like; ADHD, asthma, autism, diabetes (1 & 2!), etc.
  • ETC! The list is quite extensive
The body converts excess glutamate to GABA, which has the same calming effects as Valium and may be addictive. Does this sound familiar to a cigarette smoker? Yikes! How unfortunate that an industry can create a product that not only ruins organs like the lungs, but hooks you based on your brain’s chemical reaction to it. It basically “excites brain cells to death.”
It’s a funny thing how many health problems I had as a – normal BMI, regular exerciser, non-smoker, occasional drinker, 20-something with no real health problems to speak of. Chronic headaches, heart palpitations (yes I had an EKG!), chronic stomach/gastric issues, skin problems, fatigue, dysmenorrhea, …etc. I’m sure it wasn’t all MSG’s fault, but it’s absence from my diet has not been overlooked.
How can I avoid MSG?: Long and short of it? Eat whole foods. Fresh organic produce and fresh foods. Anything that goes bad within a week or so, is your best bet. Sure this isn’t really feasible for most people, so you can become a conscious consumer. Block an extra 30 minutes for shopping to read labels and shop around. You probably only need to do it once for most products, since you hopefully wouldn’t buy it again!
Because I care, I hope you find some relief/confirmation/help from any chronic issues you may have that could be exacerbated by MSG.

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About Sarah Hiller

Eco-maniacal! I love learning about food and health, and then sharing! I'm also an aspiring photographer, lover of kale, dogs, yoga, anything fitness, sunshine, rainbows, unicorns and heavy metal. It is my goal to empower and support people through nutrition and attitude. I have an Etsy store you can check out as well www.etsy.com/shop/ironballoon

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