How Safe is Your Artificial Sweetner?

Part III: Book Review – Excitotoxins – The Taste That Kills, by Adell V. Newman with Alexander Mullarkey


Russell Blaylock, M.D. has sounded the alarm on dangerous food additives in his book, Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills, published this year by Health Press, Inc.

Blaylock, a Mississippi neurosurgeon and clinical professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, denounces flavor enhancers and artificial sweeteners and even turns an accusing finger at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for not protecting consumers from enormous concentrations of food additives in the public food supply.

Excitotoxins are the central focus of his book. These are substances (including certain amino acids and chemicals) that can kill brain neurons (nerve cells in the central nervous system) by overstimulating them. When exposed to toxic substances, the neurons become overstimulated, or excited, and fire their impulses very rapidly until they reach a state of extreme exhaustion, explains Blaylock. “Several hours later these neurons suddenly die, as if the cells were excited to death.” The chemicals and compounds that can cause this have been dubbed excitotoxins by neuroscientists, and have received increasing attention in recent years for their possible involvement in a number of degenerative neurological diseases.

Blaylock further proposes the possibility that excitotoxins aggravate or even precipitate many neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s disease, Huntington chorea, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease. He discusses research that provides compelling evidence in support of this view.

Blaylock raises troubling questions about the introduction of large amounts of excitotoxins into the human body through common food products, such as artificial sweeteners like aspartame (which contains aspartate and is sold under brand names such as NutraSweet), and a common flavor enhancer, monosodium glutamate (MSG).

There are more than 70 excitatory amino acids that also function as neurotransmitter chemicals, but Blaylock concentrates on two: glutamate and aspartate. These are found naturally in the brain and spinal cord and, in the right balance, they help activate brain systems in charge of sensory perception, memory, orientation in time and space, cognition, and motor skills. Blaylock postulates that excessive intake of these amino acids from food additives is endangering the health of millions of unsuspecting people.

In his well-referenced (nearly 500 citations) and thoughtful book, Blaylock graphically outlines the nearly ubiquitous presence of MSG and aspartame and the way these additives can be disguised by confusing and complex food labeling. A label, says Blaylock, does not disclose everything about a product to the average lay person, for whom he says he has written this book. For instance, Blaylock lists popular food additives that always contain MSG but are disguised by ambiguous terms such as autolyzed yeast, calcium casemate, hydrolyzed oat flour, hydrolyzed protein, hydrolyzed plant protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, monosodium glutamate, plant protein extract, sodium casemate, textured protein, and yeast extract. In addition many other additives that usually contain MSG can similarly conceal its presence. These, include bouillon, broth, flavoring, malt extract, malt flavoring, natural beef or chicken flavoring, natural flavoring, seasoning, stock, and spices.

Blaylock describes one of these, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), in penetrating terms. HVP, he says, is “made from junk vegetables unfit for sale, with high amounts of glutamate, boiled in a vat of acid, and neutralized ,with caustic soda. This brown sludge becomes dried, brown powder high in glutamate, aspartate and cystoic acid which converts in the body to cysteine, another excitotoxin.” Not a very appetizing picture.

According to Blaylock, MSG kills neurons by allowing excess calcium to enter cells. When present in excessive concentrations, glutamate opens a special channel for calcium which triggers cells to die.

Blaylock blames the FDA for not guaranteeing consumer access to complete nutritional information by not requiring manufacturers to list all additives containing MSG and hydrolyzed vegetable protein in a clear and concise way. He proposes the FDA “conduct open hearings on the safety of these additives with scientific testimony from those not connected to the food manufacturing industry or to the manufacturers of MSG, NutraSweet or hydrolyzed vegetable protein or their representatives.”

He further cites the FDA with failure to demand fair labeling. The words “monosodium glutamate” are not required on food labels unless the food contains 100 percent pure MSG as a distinct component. If MSG exists within another ingredient, it does not have to be named. For instance, Blaylock says, if broth containing pure MSG is an ingredient used to make soup, then MSG does not have to be listed separately on the label. A consumer reading the label might see the word “broth” but still would not know the product actually contained MSG.

Blaylock attacks his own industry, the medical profession, for not only failing to recognize the dangers of food additives and excitotoxins, but also for actually encouraging their use. He says some hospitals add excitotoxin food to patients’ prescribed diets, even in tube feeding formulas. He said hospital nutritionists recommend glutamine, the precursor glutamate, as an additive to food to improve intestinal function in seriously ill patients. He said some cardiologists have even concocted an “MSG cocktail” in the belief that glutamate will improve cardiac function.

Fetal and infant exposure to powerful chemical compounds like aspartate and glutamate is of particular concern to Blaylock. He makes a case that these chemicals can cause developmental brain defects resulting in autism, learning disorders, hyperactive behavior, and even schizophrenia in children. He also shows how excitotoxins can contribute to strokes, brain injury, hypoglycemic brain damage, seizures, migraine headaches, hypoxic brain damage, and AIDS dementia in adults.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of damage by excitotoxins is that the damage is silent, subtle, and cumulative. No obvious adverse effects may show until later in life. “In the case of children, the damage done at the time of initial exposure produces no obvious outward effects,” Blaylock says. However, when the child reaches a later stage of development, either adolescence or adulthood, “the damage may present itself as an endocrine disorder or even possibly a learning disorder (autism, attention deficit disorder, dyslexia) or emotion control disorder (violent episodes, schizophrenia, paranoia). Hundreds of millions of children are at great risk and their parents are not even aware of it.

Blaylock even looks to excitotoxins as a possible cause of violent behavior. “There is a possibility that early exposure to excitotoxins could cause a tendency for episodic violence and criminal behavior in later years,” writes Blaylock. He mentions numerous examples of normal child development hindered by excitotoxin exposure and causing problems like endocrine disorders, dyslexia, emotional control disorders, and destruction of vital groups of neurons in the hypothalamus (silent brain lesion). He warns parents to “stop your child’s exposure to excitotoxins now!”

Blaylock warns that transference of excitotoxins between a pregnant mother and her fetus during the first eight weeks of gestation could cause irreparable damage. “When a pregnant woman drinks liquid aspartate in NutraSweet in a diet cola, the aspartate enters the blood stream rapidly, potentially passing through the placenta where it would flood the developing brain of the baby,” writes Blaylock. “There are also conditions in which a person’s blood level of glutamate can rise to extremely high levels for prolonged periods of time following MSG ingestion. This would create a situation in which the placenta barrier would be breached, thereby exposing the baby to toxic doses of glutamate or aspartate.”

In a powerful comment about fetal damage, Blaylock states, “one reason the FDA has not issued a warning is that babies exposed to MSG and NutraSweet are not born obviously deformed… the effects of hypothalamic damage usually do not show up until many years later.”

Blaylock’s bleak picture worsens with the compounding effects of combinations of excitotoxins. He says “MSG, aspartate, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein given in a single meal is much more toxic than when given individually. I have seen single frozen diet food dinners that contain MSG, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and natural flavoring together. Add a diet drink sweetened with NutraSweet and you have a single meal with four excitotoxins.”

Dieters beware, says Blaylock. Diet foods may actually be preventing weight loss, or worse, setting the stage for weight gain in spite of strict calorie reduction. He cites annual studies that show “animals exposed to MSG were found to be short, grossly obese, and had difficulty with sexual reproduction. Obesity is one of the most consistent features of the excitotoxin syndrome. One characteristic of the obesity induced by excitotoxins is that it doesn’t appear to depend on food intake. This could explain why some people cannot diet away their obesity. It is ironic that so many people drink diet drinks sweetened with NutraSweet when aspartate can produce the exact same lesion as glutamate, resulting in gross obesity.”

Further, states Blaylock, glutamate in the blood has been demonstrated to impair the passage of essential glucose into the brain, and can cause that vital organ to become energy-starved or hypoglycemic even when blood sugar levels appear normal by routine examination.

Damage to the blood-brain barrier, the brain’s gatekeeper, may occur over time from exposure to excitotoxins such as excess glutamate and aspartate in foods and drinks, writes Blaylock. In addition to excitotoxins, he lists the following weakening agents to the brain’s protective barrier: brain trauma, chemical toxins, infections, hypertension, excessive physical stress, radiation, metals (including lead exposure), and severely low blood sugar content. Further, states Blaylock, glutamate in the blood has been demonstrated to impair the passage of essential glucose into the brain, and can cause that vital organ to become energy-starved or hypoglycemic even when blood sugar levels appear normal by routine examination.

Low blood sugar precipitates a variety of mixed symptoms, such as anxiety, confusion, anger, trembling, and muscle weakness, says Blaylock. He says a mature, three pound brain consumes 25 percent of the bodys total glucose content. Low energy levels can enhance glutamate toxicity so that even normally small amounts of excitotoxins in turn become toxic, writes Blaylock. He further mentions that one researcher found short exposures to high concentrations of a plant excitotoxin produced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease in humans and primates. “This may explain why glutamate (and aspartate) in our food can manifest as different diseases,” writes Blaylock.

In one chapter of the book Blaylock tackles the tough issue of Alzheimer’s disease. He emphasizes that further exposure to excess excitotoxins both from food additives and from those normally within the brain itself could accelerate the process causing the disease (Alzheimer’s) to progress more rapidly. Biochemical examinations of the brains of individuals dying with Alzheimer’s disease indicate that large numbers of glutamate-type neurons are specifically destroyed.”

Blaylock highlights many interesting phenomena related to excitotoxins. Some of those are:

* substances labeled “spices,” “natural flavoring,” and “flavoring” may contain between 30 percent and 60 percent MSG
* there is no way to measure who possesses abundant natural protective mechanisms against excitotoxin damage and who does not
* clinical diabetes is triggered by an unidentified environmental event that could be an excitotoxin
* results of a study suggest that diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease don’t co-exist and that patients with Alzheimer’s disease demonstrate reactive hypoglycemia
* brain stimulants to be avoided include caffeine, coffee, chocolate, headache preparations, cold medicines, appetite suppressants, and wake-up pills junk foods contain the highest concentrations of excitotoxins
* excitotoxins in liquid form, such as beverages sweetened with NutraSweet and soups containing MSG, are more rapidly and completely absorbed and therefore pose the greatest risk
* humans concentrate glutamate twenty times higher in their blood than monkeys and five times higher than juice. Humans may be five times more vulnerable to MSG toxicity than mice, the most sensitive animal known to this type of brain injury. Glutamate remains elevated in the blood much longer in humans than in animals and exposes unprotected portions of the brain to very toxic levels.
* the amount of MSG needed to damage the developing nervous system in baby animals is only one-fourth that needed to do damage in adults
* excitotoxins such as MSG and aspartate can cause an early onset of puberty and shrunken ovaries in female rats.

Blaylock refers to studies on aspartame that have linked the substance with a high incidence of brain tumors in animals. “As a neurosurgeon I see the devastating effects a brain tumor has, not only on its victim, but on the victim’s family as well. To think there is even a reasonable doubt that aspartame can induce brain tumors in the American population is frightening. And to think the FDA has killed them into a false sense of security is a monumental crime.” Author Blaylock says that the incidence of brain tumors in people over age 65 increased 67 percent between 1973 and 1990. He said that during the same period, brain tumors in all age groups jumped by greater than 10 percent – the greatest increases during the years from 1985 to 1987.

Overall, Blaylock’s message in this exhaustive and well-documented book is that people need to re-program their eating habits, turn to fresh foods and excitotoxin-free beverages, and beware of incomplete or camouflaged labeling. He also underscores the importance of avoidance of excitotoxins for people who have a history of sensitivity to MSG or a family history of neurodegenerative disease.

Blaylock is good to the reader. He provides an easy to read background on the central nervous system and various brain functions, as well as a glossary for quick reference on medical and technical terms. The history of the development of MSG as a food additive provides interesting reading. A number of flawed studies used as the basis for continuing to classify glutamate and aspartame as safe are recounted in Blaylock’s book. Blaylock is a good educator. By providing solid research instead of alarmist propaganda, he has put together an enlightening, timely, and important book that provides informational tools for the reader.

The tone of the book is summed up by one of Blaylock’s statements: “Americans must learn to think for themselves.”

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