Glutamate: A Neuron Killer in Disguise

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This common ingredient that makes snack foods irresistible is linked to neurodegenerative disease

The discovery of glutamate more than a century ago was a milestone in the quest to make food as tasty as possible. Unfortunately, it took decades longer to learn that this amino acid is a critical neurotransmitter and that overeating it can have devastating effects.

Glutamate, in all its varied forms, has become a foundational additive in the so-called hyperpalatable processed foods we can hardly stop ourselves from eating—despite endless warnings to do so. Processed foods are a leading cause of disease, and many are almost irresistible because of the savory unami flavor bestowed by glutamate.

Glutamate’s most famous form—monosodium glutamate, or MSG—was discovered early on by the same Japanese chemist who discovered glutamate’s flavor-enhancing power.

In 1908, Kikunae Ikeda extracted glutamate from seaweed and sparked a multibillion-dollar flavor-enhancing phenomenon. Today, it’s widely used in potato chips, canned tuna, meat products, frozen meals, infant formulas, and other processed foods, and even in cosmetics and vaccines.

Consequences of Overconsumption

Significant research links the presence of too much glutamate in the brain to some of the most unsettling ailments of our day, including the neurological conditions of Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s diseaseHuntington’s disease, and others.

And avoiding it isn’t easy, since it hides under many different names, from its more chemical-sounding variants such as L-Glutamic acid or sodium glutamate, to far less obvious ingredients such as yeast extract, gelatin, textured protein, or soy protein isolate.

There are some important differences between these different kinds of glutamate, however, notes, the website of Josh Axe, a clinical nutritionist and certified doctor of natural medicine.

Glutamate is naturally found in many foods, especially in meat and dairy. It’s a substance that occurs naturally in plants and animals. And in these natural states it’s bound together with other minerals, proteins, and compounds that help it move through the body without issue.

But the processed and synthetic forms of glutamate are different.

“Free glutamate … is the modified form that is absorbed more rapidly. The modified, free form is the type linked to more potential health problems,” states.

Its widespread use means glutamate is consumed by people in most industrialized nations. MSG is consumed in amounts of 0.3 to 1.0 grams a day.

By Daniel Stanislowski

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