Food additives. They provide crunch to crackers, shelf life to cereals, sweetness to “diet” foods, and enhance the flavor of everything from soups to nuts. In fact, when you eat a processed food, you’re most likely consuming at least one of 3,000 FDA-approved food additives.
Tasty and FDA-approved, who could ask for more? As it turns out, many researchers and holistic health care providers express alarm about the potential health consequences of these food “enhancers.” Of particular concern: Monosodium glutamate (MSG), added to thousands of processed foods to enhance flavor and the sugar substitute aspartame (known as Equal or NutraSweet).
Both are classified as excitotoxins–chemicals, usually acidic amino acids, that react with specialized receptors in the brain to “excite” the neurons and cause them to fire abnormally, leading eventually to the damaging or even death of the brain cell, explains Holly Lucille, RN, ND, from her Los Angles-based naturopathic medical practice. “Research shows excitotoxins may possibly play a role in such conditions as Alzheimer’s, ADHD, cognitive decline, and a host of other hormonal and neurological disorders,” she adds.
Take, for example, diet soda sweetened with NutraSweet. If you think all that sweetness for zero calories sounds like a winning combination, think again, says Russell Blaylock, MD, a retired Jackson, Mississippi, neurosurgeon and author of Excitotoxins, The Taste That Kills (Health Press, 1997). “Forty percent of NutraSweet–aspartame–is composed of aspartate, a known excitotoxin,” reports Blaylock. “Like the glutamate in MSG, aspartate is a powerful brain toxin that can produce similar neuron damage.”
Although highly susceptible individuals may experience more immediate symptoms such as chronic headaches, nausea, muscle weakness, chest pain, or breathing difficulties, neuron damage from continued exposure to excitotoxins is usually gradual, explains Blaylock. “Although probably not the direct cause of neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s), they may precipitate these disorders and certainly worsen their progression.” Likewise, he adds, excitotoxins may be harmful to those suffering from strokes, head injury, and HIV infection, and certainly should not be used in a hospital setting.
Both Blaylock and Lucille concur: 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, put those reading glasses to good use and scrutinize the small print on ingredient labels-if MSG or aspartame turn up, take a pass. And beware: Manufacturers often disguise MSG on labels as yeast extract, calcium or sodium caseinate, glutamate, hydrolyzed protein, or even “natural” flavoring. For a complete list, go to NaturoDoc.
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