The Devil in Your Diet: How We Are Quietly Poisoning Ourselves
Who should read this article:
- Migraine sufferers.
- Neurological disorder (depression, ADHD, seizure, autism, etc.) sufferers.
- Overweight people.
- Health-conscious people.
- People. People should read this. All of them.
The Migraine of Doom!
No one knows exactly what causes migraines because the reasons can vary from person to person – there’s no blanket cause for migraine. But what they DO know is that people who are prone to them can have them aggravated by certain things.
I was getting them so frequently it was easier to say when I didn’t have one than when I did. The pain was excruciating and debilitating, lasting for days sometimes. For over a decade I had missed so much work, so much life! Of course I’d been to doctors over and again and learned some things that helped treat the symptoms. But what I wanted was to prevent the migraines from happening in the first place. I tried in vain to figure out the cause or trigger.
Having recently read some damning publications on the ingredients found in our foods, I started to make some healthful changes in my diet, eliminating foods with artificial ingredients and GMOs. I did this just because I wanted to be a healthier individual. Artificial sweeteners with their link to cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes, had been crossed off my food list for years, as had Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). (My husband, who suffers with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), had learned decades earlier that MSG irritated his condition. In subsequent years, he also learned the other effects of MSG, including migraine. He taught me to recognize certain ingredients in foods that were hidden sources of MSG.)
A pleasant side-effect to all these dietary changes was finding myself migraine-free for about two weeks. I was on cloud nine! Then one fateful night, I settled into a plate of chicken with rice and veggies lovingly prepared for us by my mother. It was a new recipe and it was oh, so good! A half an hour later I found myself in excruciating pain in my head. It would be useless to try to put words to the pain I felt. I will say that on a scale of one to ten, this was a twenty. I literally begged my husband to end my life. Of course he wouldn’t do my bidding, but he did do everything in his power to ease my pain.
About an hour into my agony I began to think about what could have caused this sudden onset of a migraine. For years I had searched for the “why” I suffered with migraines, but there were too many variables to pin it down. This night held the answer. It was something I was eating. But what? My husband dug through the garbage to find the packet of sauce my mother had used. He scrutinized the packet’s ingredients to find only one questionable listing: modified corn starch. A quick Internet search yielded a great deal of information about this ingredient. The process required to “modify” corn starch often utilizes MSG. MSG (the little devil!) was hidden in a place I’d never heard of! Five or six hours later, I emerged from my dark, silent cave of a room, my headache now a manageable 60% less in severity – probably a nine on the pain scale. I served up some ice cream to help to numb my brain a little and then went to work looking up the hidden sources of MSG. . .because I sure as hell wanted to avoid them at all costs if they were going to make me feel like this! That’s when I learned the most important piece of knowledge regarding MSG. But more on that in a bit.
MSG seemed to be in just about everything. I thought I had eliminated it from my own diet, but I was nowhere close! One cannot eliminate it entirely because it is a naturally existing substance in some plants. But one CAN reduce the amount ingested drastically through diet change.
As soon as I was somewhat recovered from the mother of all migraines, I immediately went to the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry and began reading labels and throwing out foods and condiments that were harbingers of MSG. At first making these dietary changes (sacrifices, really) was pretty hard for me. I didn’t know what was safe to eat – everything began to look like a poison to me. I think I lived for a week on yogurt, fruit, and bread. Then I went through a sort of emotional withdrawal as I mourned the loss of my favorite foods. After about three or four weeks of suffering through this (I can’t eat this, I can’t eat that. . .but I WANT that!), I began to enter a state of denial. MSG couldn’t have possibly been the cause of my migraines! It didn’t matter that I had now been a month without a migraine, I wanted the food I wanted to eat! So, I gave in and ate some spaghetti. The innocent little meal threw me into another horrible migraine. I knew then that my findings were true. MSG is the devil!!
Of course that meant that I must now learn to eat foods I was not accustomed to. But did I have to give up spaghetti and chicken and barbeque sauce and stir fry? The answer is no. It took a bit of research to find those companies that did not use MSG in certain products. I had to start making a lot of my own foods. I’ve learned which of my favorite places to eat out are “safe” and I’ve learned which questions to ask when I’m ordering food to ensure that I don’t fall prey to a hidden ingredient. In short, I’ve made a full dietary change. But when I think about it, it’s not a bad dietary change at all! Eating healthier, natural, organic foods is better for me in every way. It reduces the likelihood of getting cancer, gives me more energy, does not alter my mood (other than to feel wonderful!), and has actually helped me to lose a little weight! I feel better physically and mentally and I have not had a severe migraine in over a year!
I will reiterate what I said at the beginning: No one knows the cause of migraine. Studies have shown that women get them more frequently than men, likely because of hormones. Those lovely little estrogen hormones are bringers of doom for many women. I still get a headache around “that time of the month.” It’s usually anywhere from a two-four on the pain scale. But it lasts only a few hours instead of a few days like it used to and it is not so debilitating that I cannot think or participate in life. Am I saying that eliminating MSG from your diet will stop your migraines? I don’t have the authority or knowledge to make that kind of claim. But it worked for me. And with everything I have learned about MSG, I would caution everyone to stay away from it.
MSG doesn’t create migraines. It doesn’t cause ADD. What it does is far more sinister and effects, on one level or another, every person who ingests it. The short of it is this: If you are prone to any sort of neurological issue, from depression to seizures – any of those things which originate from or have to do with the brain/nervous system – MSG enhances it. THAT is why some migraine sufferers suffer from migraine with the kind of frequency that I did. But more on this later.
Research Proves It! MSG is the Devil!
One reason to avoid MSG is that it causes obesity. Back in the ‘60s, researcher Dr. John Olney tested MSG on lab animals. What he found was that MSG damaged cells of the hypothalamus in the brain and made the animals morbidly obese. He published a paper on the subject. The FDA ignored it for the most part because they assumed the quantities included in certain processed foods were negligible. What they couldn’t count on was that people would be consuming it in almost everything they ate! Researchers continue to fatten their animals up with MSG to perform certain studies related to obesity and weight-loss. Likewise, farmers will often use MSG to engorge their produce, creating larger tomatoes and fatter corn, for instance. Animals slated for milk production or slaughter (especially pigs) are often fed MSG with their regular diet to quite literally fatten them up. This, of course, translates directly to your dinner plate.
In the same way MSG causes obesity by affecting the hypothalamus, it effects insulin production. The hypothalamus regulates the production of the hormone leptin. Lab studies once again found that MSG-induced, obese, female mice become leptin-resistant (male mice became insulin resistant).
In case you haven’t seen the connection, MSG affects the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is responsible for a lot of our bodily functions. It inhibits or stimulates key processes, including the heart, blood pressure, electrolyte balance, appetite/weight, sleep cycles, glandular secretions of the stomach and intestines, proper pituitary gland function, and proper functioning of the autonomic nervous system. Critically, it is responsible for production of a variety of hormones: ADH (for absorption of water), CRH (for metabolism and immune response), GnRH (for proper functioning of the ovaries and testes), GHRH (for growth), Oxytocin (for orgasm, better sleep, regulation of body temperature, etc.), PRH/PIH (aka dopamine; for breast milk production, thyroid function, and metabolism).
It should come as no surprise, then, when we learn that research has further proven a link between consumption of MSG and the effects on certain neurological conditions. You may not see these effects right away, but they are happening to everyone. If you are especially prone to headaches or migraine, depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety, stroke, seizures, ADD, ADHD, or any neurologically-linked condition, the consumption of MSG will exacerbate it. The scientific link to certain behavioral issues is clear. Parents who gave their ADD/ADHD-suffering children a diet free of MSG have seen marked changes in their behavior. Further, women who are pregnant are often encouraged to avoid MSG so as to prevent their baby from developing autism. (With autism on the rise, perhaps MSG is to blame.) I’ve read countless stories online of people who have suffered from one of these issues and who, once eliminating MSG from their diets, saw marked changes in their condition. Personally, my husband was put into special education classes because of his ADD when he was younger. Now they have medications to treat ADD, but he has never taken them and urges others to follow suit. Since he learned about MSG, he simply avoids the stuff and is better for it. Now, the only time his ADD bothers him is when he is under extreme stress or when he has accidentally consumed MSG.
Since we know that MSG literally kills the hypothalamus, why would we want to consume it? It doesn’t really take a genius to figure out that MSG is bad for us. So, while I am not a medical professional, I do know how to read. There is much evidence available to the public on this subject. If you care to take the time to read the complicated scientific studies and materials out there, you will be able to corroborate what I have outlined here. I am learning new things daily about MSG and other ingredients the FDA allows in our foods. But thank God I was finally able to figure out how to stop my migraines from happening!
Why Does the FDA Allow It?
Talking to my doctor about my findings, I asked him this very question. He simply replied, “The FDA is not there to protect you.” That sort of shocked me. He didn’t have much time to elaborate on that, but he did encourage me to look more into it myself.
Why would the FDA allow ingredients known to cause certain cancers, behavioral disorders, and other side effects in the foods we eat? I read the FDA’s “What We Do” page on their website – a sort of mission statement. It was almost laughable because time and time again they have chosen to ignore real scientific studies on certain things like artificial food coloring and MSG. They do, however, provide plenty of information about safety levels of these things. In fact, if I were to give the FDA a motto it would be, “It’s OK to eat in small amounts.”
The trend in their thinking seems to be that, at a certain level, a thing can be consumed without permanent damage to the consumer. The trouble with that logic is that it allows producers to put up to that set amount in each box of product. If every producer does this and we consume three boxes of that product a day, then we are consuming three-times the safe (according to the FDA) amount. Do that every day and it’s tantamount to poisoning yourself.
How Can YOU Avoid MSG?
Start buying organic. Especially your meats. Ignore statements like “all natural” (because, if you remember, MSG is “natural”) and really look at the ingredients. Meat should just be meat and produce should just be produce.
Make your own foods. Finding pre-packaged foods that are free of MSG can be difficult and pricy. The store brand spaghetti sauce is a few dollars cheaper than the Newman’s organic sauce; the Kraft macaroni and cheese is a dollar cheaper than Annie’s; the Lays potato chips are a dollar or two cheaper than the Boulder kettle chips; and certainly the Hunts ketchup is three dollars cheaper than the organic one. But when you want those things and you don’t want the migraine, you make it happen. You buy what you have to buy.
Making your own foods, however, can really help to cut back on your budget so you can afford the pricier, healthier options in the pre-packaged foods. Many people these days don’t like to cook or don’t have the time. God knows I don’t generally like it either. But my husband and I are finding a new appreciation for it – a joy, even. We’re learning how to alter our favorite recipes to be healthier. We’re also making things in bulk and freezing them for another meal so we don’t have to cook as often.
I’ll tell you one thing about this. It teaches you to appreciate your foods more. We become complacent with our eating. We stuff our faces and forget to enjoy our food. But when that food costs more or was more difficult to prepare, we appreciate it all the more. I know what’s gone into my food and I know it is guilt free. Meals for me have become not only healthier but something I take the time to savor – they have become a sensory and emotional experience. You will find as we have that foods that are free of MSG and other additives actually have better, truer flavor.
The major excuse I get from people when I encourage them to try an MSG-free diet is cost. I can only do so much to educate and inform others. If they don’t suffer from migraines or behavioral issues, they may not see the validity of such an altered diet and subsequent change in expense. For my part, the savings on doctor visits, medications, and loss of work well make up for the increased prices. If a healthier body and mind mean anything to you, you will find, over time, ways to adjust your budget and ways to shop that will help you find your own savings – just as I have.
Read the ingredients. As I mentioned earlier, MSG can hide itself in many places. I’ve made a list that I carry with me when I do my shopping. I also keep a copy on the fridge for reference. (This list is below. Feel free to copy it and use it for yourself.) Companies go to great lengths to hide questionable ingredients like MSG whenever possible, so it’s up to us to recognize where those ingredients can be hidden.
One thing I have learned to be especially cautious about is tomato-based products. Tomatoes aren’t bad, but companies somehow feel that their flavor can only be appreciated when enhanced with MSG. Other key products to watch for include ethnic sauces (i.e. Chinese stir-fry sauces, pre-made Indian spices/sauces, and Hispanic sauces and salsas). Finally, stay away from processed meats like bologna, hot dogs, sausages, and even deli meats (pork products are the worst offenders) – they are frequent harbingers of MSG.
But this doesn’t mean you can’t find alternatives to these items. With a little research and label reading, you will find products that are safe and tasty. For instance, I recently discovered that Boar’s Head deli meats are generally pretty safe. Their pork is never okay, but the turkey and some of their beef and chicken meats are safe to eat. Just ask the butcher/deli supervisor. A quick call/email to the product manufacturer or to a butcher, or a little sleuthing on your part can get you on your way to finding foods that are safe to eat. Start with brands like Amy’s, Annie’s, and Newman’s Own. (Newman’s actually has a chart on their website with an MSG column to help you identify which of their products are free of MSG.)
Print and keep this list with you at all times and forever! I’ve accumulated this ingredient list from various sources and condensed it. It is organized alphabetically to help you find an ingredient more quickly and coded (see key) by likelihood of MSG content. Don’t freak out at this list! Well, freak out a little, but only enough to make you more circumspect about your ingredients. I have found that most items containing vinegar or corn starch, for instance, aren’t really frequent (if ever) perpetrators – especially when buying organic.
|(Annatto)||Modified food starch|
|Barley malt||(Rice syrup)|
|Brown rice syrup||Soy sauce extract|
|Citric acid, Citrate||Stock|
|(Corn starch)||Torula yeast|
|(Lipolyzed butter fat)||Yeast Extract|
|Malt extract||Yeast food, Yeast nutrient|
|KEY:||Ingredient always contains MSG.|
|Ingredient often contains MSG.|
|Ingredient sometimes contains MSG.|
|(Suspected MSG-reaction triggers in highly sensitive people.)|
I’m at a point now where I don’t really even refer to this list too often. I find that by simply watching for some keywords, I can effectively eliminate any food which might contain MSG. Of course, going organic has simplified this task a great deal because you won’t find many organic foods with ingredients that need to be questioned. Words I watch for are:
|Spices (Spices are not bad for you, but when a company doesn’t list them out they sometimes are hiding MSG under this grouping.)|
|Protein (Because the process required to narrow down proteins like soy, whey, etc. often requires MSG. These proteins must be chemically extracted – and that’s never a good thing.)|
|Chelated (The process for chelating minerals often requires MSG as well, so steer clear of “chelated” minerals if possible.)|
An important note: MSG (listed as “Monosodium Glutamate” or “MSG”) is required by the FDA to be listed as an ingredient. But when MSG is used in the production of certain ingredients like spices, preservatives, etc., it is not necessary to list MSG alone. If you are unsure if a product contains MSG or an MSG-related ingredient and you really want to eat it, it’s best to investigate the product further. I have made a few dozen inquiries regarding foods with mysterious ingredients. I will shoot off an email to a company’s customer service department or call the number on the back of the package to speak to a customer service representative. There may be proprietary ingredients that the maker does not which do divulge but which their customer service department has a full list of. While they probably won’t tell you what the actual ingredients are, they can answer certain questions, especially if it is for your health. Here are some of the questions I may pose to the manufacturer. Hopefully they will be of help to you.
- Does [product name] contain any processed free glutamic acid?
- Does [product name] contain any ingredient which has the word “modified” in its name?
- Does [product name] contain any ingredient with the word “glutamate” in its name?
The MSG “Cure”
Before I wrap this up, I want to offer an MSG remedy for you to try. I’m still in trials on whether this works for me or not, but an MSG victim posted on her page that it worked for her so I thought it was worth investigating. Take 1tsp of cream of tartar, mix it into a tiny glass of water, and guzzle it down. I like to add a little lemon juice to make it more palatable. Do this as soon as you know you’ve eaten a known MSG source or if you start to feel the effects of MSG after eating. The theory is that the cream of tartar will absorb much of the MSG. I’ve tried it three times, but am unsure as to the results. I would have to purposefully subject myself to MSG two or three times and I’m just not willing to risk it.
I know this was lengthy, but I’m glad you stuck with me. I truly do hope you take my words to heart and that, by avoiding MSG, you find yourself healthier, happier, and free from migraines (or whatever it is that ails you). I would love to hear your results. Please message me or comment below.
a tiny voice
UPDATE (January 2, 2017): Treatments/Prevention
At the suggestion of others, I have tried a couple of preventative measures when eating foods with questionable ingredients or known MSG sources. The first I tried with only some success: cream of tartar. Cream of tartar works to absorb MSG and pass it through the digestive system without allowing it to work into the bloodstream. At first I took it by the teaspoonful in a glass of water following my meal. Then for convenience, I began making my own capsules filled with cream of tartar and taking three or four of these horse-sized pills after a meal. This remedy worked with some success, but not total success. Symptoms would still arise, including a mild headache, dull thinking, and minor sensory symptoms such as light and noise sensitivities. In foods with blatant MSG content, there was so little relief it was hardly noticeable. The effects were confirmed by my husband whose ADD symptoms would manifest themselves immediately and without apology regardless of his ingestion of MSG-laced foods. The consumption of foods containing modified starches or natural flavor were more easily (but not entirely) treated with cream of tartar than foods with higher MSG content, such as certain fast food items.
The second remedy was suggested by a nutritionist at our local Natural Grocer store: charcoal. Charcoal tablets are harmless to take and quite cheap to keep in supply. Further, they aid in digestion and are recommended by many to take with meals. Like the cream of tartar, charcoal works to absorb MSG and pass it through the digestive system without allowing it to work into the bloodstream. Having previously given up Panda Express because the cream of tartar had no impact on the side effects of their food, I was eager to try this new remedy. I ordered my favorite Panda Express dishes, popped three charcoal capsules, ate the meal, popped three more and waited. Nothing. My husband, too, was unaffected and he had taken fewer capsules. I’m never brave enough to try fewer, so with foods I know will elicit a reaction in me, I take no chances and consume all six capsules.
I will never eat in abundance foods containing MSG even though I have found remedies in cream of tartar and charcoal. It is bad practice to consume foods regularly with known harmful content as it is irresponsible to our health. It is likewise impossible to determine the actual effect MSG is having on us even in small amounts. But what a comfort it is to know that I can go to a friend’s house for dinner or try a new restaurant with less likelihood of developing a migraine or my husband having an ADD flareup by simply ensuring we have plenty of charcoal on hand.
I would be interested to hear how you fare with these or other remedies. Please comment below.
a tiny voice