Anecdotal and lab evidence provide ample reasons to avoid the controversial food additive, which hides under many names

by Craig Weatherby

We refuse to use synthetic additives in Vital Choice foods (For one reason why, see our accompanying article, “Food Additives May Cause Hyperactivity”).

But some presumably “natural” food ingredients and additives aren't quite what they seem.

Key Points

  • Unlike national brands, Vital Choice Tuna contains no MSG or other additives.
  • MSG hides under many names in processed foods.
  • MSG is an “excitotoxin”, triggering processes that damage brain cells.

For example, if you look at the ingredient list on one famous brand of canned tuna, you will notice that it includes “vegetable broth.” Sounds natural enough, right?

In fact, “vegetable broth” is just one of many non-synthetic food ingredients or additives that, deliberately and disingenuously, contain high levels of monosodium glutamate (MSG).

The motivation to add MSG is obvious, since it heightens the tastes already imparted by natural foods, thereby increasing consumption and repeat sales.

And the motivation to hide MSG under other namesnamely, consumers' vague discomfort with foods containing added “chemicals”is equally obvious.

MSG's many masks

Do you like to put Lawry's Seasoned Salt on foods? Be aware that the “seasoning” in it is MSG.

The long list of natural-sounding food ingredients and additives high in glutamatethe active, potentially problematic ingredient in MSG— includes the following:

hydrolyzed protein • autolyzed yeast • calcium caseinate • yeast extract • sodium caseinate • monopotassium glutamate • textured protein glutamate • hydrolyzed oat flour • glutamic acid • yeast nutrient • gelatin • Accent • Glutavene • Ajinomoto • whey protein • natural beef flavoring • protein isolate • natural chicken flavoring • protein concentrate • natural pork flavoring • protein • fortified flavoring • natural flavoring • protease enzymes • seasoning • enzymes • soy sauce

Glutamate (glutamic acid) is an essential amino acid, and as such it is one of the building blocks of proteins found in many natural foods such as parmesan cheese, tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms, and seaweed.

Thus, glutamate is perfectly natural.

But the glutamate in whole foods is bound up in their proteins, and is released incompletely and slowly.

In contrast, the “free” glutamate in MSG gets split from its bond with sodium very rapidly, sending much greater amounts into the bloodstream.

And as we will explain, it is the rapid release of relatively large amounts of glutamate from MSG that may present real, albeit uncertain risks.

The story of MSG

Several years before the outbreak of WW I, Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda began wondering why most Japanese cooks seasoned soups with a seaweed called kombu. In 1908, he identified kombu's natural flavor enhancing constituent as the sodium salt of glutamic acid, or monosodium glutamate (MSG).

By the mid-1930s, synthetic MSG had become a major additive in Asian foods. MSG landed on these shores after World War II, and soon found its way into many processed and restaurant foods.

MSG is unique in that it does not impart a flavor, per se, but instead stimulates neural pathways associated with taste, thereby heightening the intensity of the flavors created by foods.

Additives in canned and frozen fish: A distasteful duo
There are many synthetic additives used in canned and frozen fish, including this unpalatable pair, which you will never find in Vital Choice foods:

Sodium pyrophosphate is a thickening agent found in at least one major canned tuna brand and in packaged crab meat, coffee creamers, marshmallows and chicken nuggets. Evidence of its “mild” toxicity when added to foods dates back more than 90 years (Symes WL, Gardner JA 1915).

TBHQ is a synthetic antioxidant used to keep vegetable oils and animal fats from going rancid (oxidizing). TBHQ occurs in a wide range of packaged, prepared, and fast foods, but frozen fish are allowed to contain the highest concentrations. In very high doses, TBHQ causes stomach tumors and DNA damage to lab animals. TBHQ is also industrially, as a stabilizer in varnishes, lacquers, resins, and oil field additives, and must be handled with protective clothing.

MSG has this effect because glutamate is a key neurotransmitter, for which our cell 

surfaces have special receptors.

The problem is that over-stimulation of glutamate receptors generates free radicals, which damage nerve and brain cells.

Neuroscience even has a special nameexcitotoxinsfor chemicals that over-stimulate glutamate receptors, which include MSG and Aspartame.

This is how the authors of a recent study described the dangers of over-stimulating people's glutamate receptors (Lipton SA et al 2007):

  • “Excitotoxicity, defined as over-stimulation of glutamate receptors, has been implicated in a final common pathway contributing to neuronal injury and death in a wide range of acute and chronic neurological disorders, ranging from Parkinson's disease (PD), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer's disease (AD) to stroke and trauma.
  • “Excitotoxic cell death is due, at least in part, to excessive activation of… glutamate receptors, leading to… free radical production... These free radicals can trigger a variety of injurious pathways…”

These authors were not talking about the effects of consuming free glutamate or MSG from foods. In fact, there is little or no evidence that even relatively high intake of glutamate or MSG from foods causes detectable, short-term brain damage in human adults or children.

But given what we know about excitotoxins like MSG, it appears plausible to propose that chronic consumption of free glutamate and/or MSG could promote or exacerbate degenerative neurological diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

What's more, MSG may help make you fat, as it does rodents:

the occurrence of “MSG-obesity” in rodents fed the additive in their chow is well documented (Iwase M et al 1998, 2000; Guimaraes RB 2002).

Chinese Restaurant Syndrome

Short of brain damage, some people experience distinct symptomsincluding headaches and tightness in the chest— after ingesting MSG: an uncommon but well-documented condition called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.

Clinical studies have generally failed to detect any difference in people's reactions to MSG and “placebos”, which, by definition, are supposed to exert no biological effects related to the substance (in this case, MSG) being tested.

However, quite a few trials used placebos that were (suspiciously) unidentified or included Aspartame, which is also considered an excitotoxin and could produce the same effects as MSG, thereby leading the researchers to conclude that MSG is “no different from placebo.”

Some of these studies were conducted or funded by an MSG-industry group called the International Glutamate Technical Committee.

To quote one skeptical researcher: “Placebo-controlled studies of effects of monosodium L-glutamate (MSG) and mixed synthetic food dyes in humans which have led to claims that these additives are safe in general use may be questioned on 3 methodological grounds: both active substance and placebo may be inadequately specified in published reports and potent common food allergens are used as placebos” (Rippere V 1981).

We, too, are skeptical about the assurances that MSG is totally safe, so we keep MSGin all of its guisesout of our canned Albacore Tuna and all other Vital Choice foods.


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