I’m not a doctor or a scientific researcher. And I don’t play one on TV. But I like to know what I’m putting into my body when I eat, so I read a lot about food and health. Some of the things I’ve read raise the hairs on the back of my neck. But for every hair-raising item I find about foods, counter intelligence seems to be equally abundant.
Lately I’ve been reading about excitotoxicity which some in the medical community believe may be linked to various forms of dementia, ADHD, Parkinson’s Disease and other neurological conditions. The leading proponent of this theory is Dr. Russell Blaylock, M.D. a retired neurologist who has written several books on the subject. He believes that food additives such as aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG) can cause the kind of brain damage that leads to such conditions. The doctor warns readers to eliminate the use of food additives such as MSG and aspartame and to increase their intake of antioxidants.
Blaylock’s writings have been met with resounding criticism perhaps because his theories are largely unsupported by empirical research. He contends that such research is suppressed by big pharmaceuticals and the medical community, both of which profit from disease. Cynical though his position is, the foods he advocates eating at the very least won’t hurt us. But what about the things he says we should avoid?
The Food and Drug Administration’s status listing of MSG as of August 2011 is “GRAS” (generally regarded as safe). The regulator also approves aspartame for use as a nutritive sweetener with restrictions that must appear on labels.
Most medical practitioners take a moderate stance on the use or avoidance of such additives. Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. answers the question “Is MSG harmful?” on MayoClinic.com by stating:
“Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that's "generally recognized as safe," the use of MSG remains controversial. For this reason, when MSG is added to food, the FDA requires that it be listed on the label… the FDA has received many anecdotal reports of adverse reactions to foods containing MSG. These reactions — known as MSG symptom complex — include: headache; flushing; sweating; facial pressure or tightness; numbness; tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas; heart palpitations; chest pain; nausea; weakness. However, researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms. Researchers acknowledge, though, that a small percentage of people may have short-term reactions to MSG. Symptoms are usually mild and don't require treatment. The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid foods containing MSG.”
Headache specialists, including Dr. A. David Rothner, Pediatric Neurologist of the Cleveland Clinic and Dr. Seymour Diamond, MD, founder of The Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago include MSG, nitrates, some food colorings, and other food additives on their lists of factors to consider when pinpointing the cause of chronic headaches. Despite FDA approval, they seem unwilling to rule additives out.
Following their lead syncs well with Grandma’s admonition to use moderation in all we do.
If you are concerned about ingesting MSG, be aware that it may go by other names too. Read food labels to see if any are contained in the foods you consider buying.
In fact, we should read labels regardless of whether MSG is a concern or not. The contents of the foods we eat are often surprising. I’ve seen a paragraph-long list of ingredients on a simple can of beans! Ingredients are listed in rank order—those making up the bulk of the product appear first. If the old adage, “you are what you eat” is true lots of people are rapidly turning into high fructose corn syrup. I’d rather be a fresh sapphire-colored blueberry or crispy, emerald-green lettuce leaf.
When we eat whole foods we avoid additives and their potential health risks altogether.
I like to err on caution’s side so I try to eat fresh, unprocessed, additive-free foods whenever possible. And I eat foods naturally rich in antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids which research suggests can promote healthy brain and nerve functioning. The recipes I create are largely composed of such ingredients.
I hedge my risks by avoiding the additives while adding potentially beneficial nutrients. I take some vitamin supplements too, but always keep the doses at or below the recommended daily allowance as I remind myself that many “natural” substances can be harmful, too. Take lead and arsenic for example. Even vitamins can contain additives so read their labels too. I highly recommend consulting with a licensed nutritionist or physician before adding such supplements or making drastic changes to your diet.
Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane / FreeDigitalPhotos.net