By David Blyweiss, M.D.
Your food can be a killer—and I don’t mean just the junk food. The main culprits are the additives monosodium glutamate (MSG) and aspartate (a component of NutraSweet) that lace our foods to enhance their taste. Known as “excitotoxins,” these chemicals have been used for years to pump up the flavor of processed foods like soups, snacks, sauces, gravies, many low-fat and vegetarian processed foods. Of course, food manufacturers insist that they are completely safe, but a growing number of studies are raising red flags over their affect on the brain.
It turns out that excitotoxins over stimulate neuron receptors. As a result, research suggests that regularly consuming excitotoxins like MSG and aspartame can, over time, destroy significant numbers of brain cells and lead to serious health problems including neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
Recent studies also suggest that artificial sweeteners can damage DNA, and I’m not just talking about aspartame. Acesulfame-K and saccharin can also trigger breaks in DNA strands. This DNA damage can eventually lead to serious health problems including cancer and Alzheimer’s.
Even short-term exposure can cause problems. According to many experts, foods containing flavor-enhancing excitotoxins are also often to blame for headaches, water retention, skin problems and other health complaints.
So how can you protect yourself from these harmful food additives? As a general rule, the more a food is processed, the more likely it is to contain MSG, aspartate and other food additives. Foods that commonly use MSG include potato chips, flavored crackers, canned soups, dry soup mixes, canned meats, diet foods, soy sauces, salad dressings, cured meats and poultry injected with broth. Aspartate can be found in most diet foods under the name aspartame or NutraSweet. But spotting these flavor-boosting chemicals on ingredient labels can be tricky. MSG can be listed as monosodium glutamate. But it can also go by other names like “hydrolyzed vegetable protein,” “spices” and “natural flavoring.” Artificial sweeteners go by the names saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K) and neotame.
Unfortunately, food additives are so pervasive in our food supply that it’s unlikely you’ll be able to avoid them completely. You can, however, defend against their harmful effects—at least to some degree—by supplementing with specific nutrients shown to dampen the impact of excitotoxins.
Supplementing with vitamins C and E appears to neutralize the impact of excitotoxins in the brain. Taking a minimum of 1,000 mg. of vitamin C daily is particularly important since the highest concentrations of this nutrient are concentrated in the brain. Other antioxidant helpers are beta carotene, Vitamin K and Vitamin D. The minerals magnesium, zinc and selenium also shield cells by protecting glutamate receptors from excessive excitotoxin absorption.
There’s also some evidence that vinpocetine can safeguard brain cells from the damage induced by excitotoxins like aspartame.Vinpocetine is a natural antioxidant from the seeds of the periwinkle plant. Along with protecting against excitotoxins, vinpocetine also acts as a vasodilator, which means it increases circulation and helps deliver more oxygen to the cells.
In all of the studies done to date, vinpocetine appears to have an amazing track record for safety up to 60 mg. a day. But, since vinpocetine does have blood thinning effects, if you’re currently taking aspirin or any other blood-thinning supplement or drug or are being treated for a cardiac or vascular disorder, make sure you talk to your doctor before trying this herb.
Eating a diet consisting primarily of fresh, whole foods is the best way to avoid food additives. But if, like most of us, you include some processed foods in your diet, scrutinize the small print on ingredient labels. If you find MSG or aspartame, take a pass. For those food additives you simply can’t avoid, fortify your nutritional defenses with the nutrients I’ve suggested. This two-pronged approach can help you reduce both the short-term and the long-term effects of excitotoxins.
Bandyopadhyay A. Genotoxicity testing of low-calorie sweeteners: aspartame, acesulfame-K, and saccharin. Drug and Chemical Toxicology. 2008;31:447-457.
Qiu S. Ascorbate transport by primary cultured neurons and its role in neuronal function and protection against excitotoxicity. Journal of Neuroscience Research. 2007;85:1046-1056.
Xiong JS. Deciphering the MSG controversy. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine. 2009;2:329-336