Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Excitotoxins: Dangers of Aspartame and MSG

What are excitotoxins?
As stated Dr. Russell Blaylock on the back cover of his book, Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills (1997), an excitotoxin is “a substance added to foods and beverages that literally stimulates neurons to death, causing brain damage of varying degrees. Can be found in such ingredients as monosodium glutamate (MSG), aspartame (NutraSweet®), cysteine, hydrolyzed protein, and aspartic acid.”

What is the risk of neuron cells dying?

You have a limited number of neurons in your brain. The neurons in your brain stop reproducing shortly after birth. Therefore, whatever neurons are lost or destroyed are gone permanently.
The destruction of neuron cells, depending on the location in the brain, is evident in many modern day diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Huntington’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. There is growing evidence that excitotoxins play a role in these neurodegenerative diseases. In addition, other diseases of the nervous system are being linked to excitotoxin buildup including AIDS dementia, brain damage, brain injury, migraine headaches, and seizures (Blaylock, 1997, p. xxi).

The number of people getting these diseases is increasing, especially Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Part of the reason for the increases, of course, is related the aging population. I remember reading an interview (I believe the year was 1987) in Rolling Stone magazine with Michael J. Fox. If you are old enough, you might remember that Michael did Diet Pepsi commercials during that time. The interview asked Michael if he actually drank Diet Pepsi. He answered yes and not only did he drink Diet Pepsi, he drank a couple of liters a day. Ever of the aspartame in the Diet Pepsi did not cause Parkinson’s disease in Michael, it may have triggered the disease much earlier than he would have gotten it otherwise. Personally, I would rather not risk it.

What exactly is aspartame?

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener found in most diet soft drinks and low calorie or diet food products. Aspartame has three major components including methanol, aspartic acid, and phenylalanine (Evangelista, 2004). Here is a description of the components of aspartame:

1. Methanol - methyl alcohol (wood alcohol) is a colorless, poisonous, and flammable liquid. It can be inhaled from vapors, absorbed through the skin, and ingested. Its breakdown components are formaldehyde (used for embalming fluid and linked to ALS) and formic acid. Methanol is used for making embalming fluid, acetic acid, methyl t-butyl ether (a gasoline additive), paint strippers, carburetor cleaners for your car's engine, and many other products. Methanol is a dangerous neurotoxin (a known carcinogen) that can have widespread and devastating effects. It causes retinal damage in the eye, interferes with DNA replication, and causes birth defects. Methanol is the type of alcohol you read about when people become blind from drinking it. Methanol is especially damaging when introduced with toxic, free-form amino acids, called excitotoxins. Methanol is quickly absorbed through the stomach and small intestine (Evangelista, 2004).

2. Aspartic acid - is a non-essential amino acid. Used as an isolate, an extremely harmful substance excites or over-stimulates nerve cells. This occurs in the brain, as well as the peripheral nerves, because aspartic acid, in free form, is an absorption accelerant & easily crosses the blood-brain barrier (Evangelista, 2004).

3. Phenylalanine - an amino acid. Amino acids are good for us and keep us healthy when in a protein chain but this amino acid in aspartame has been separated and used as an "isolate" or by itself (Evangelista, 2004). Phenylalanine can cause brain damage in children with PKU (sensitive to phenylalanine) (Hull, 2002).

Does that sound appetizing? Simply, you should stop consuming these products. Not only are most devoid of any nutritional value, they are detrimental to your health. There are significantly more obese people in America subsequent to the approval of aspartame by the FDA. Aspartame was approved in 1981 for dry food and 1983 for soft drinks (Evangelista, 2004). Diet food products do not satisfy nutritional needs and therefore create more hunger than if you ate healthy in the first place.

What is monosodium glutamate (MSG)?

Monosodium glutamate or MSG is a flavor enhancer commonly added to Chinese food, canned vegetables, soups, sauces, processed meats, and diet foods (Blaylock, 1997, p. xxi). MSG was isolated from kombu, a seaweed (Baylock, 1997, p. xviii). The use of MSG is controversial. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified MSG as a food ingredient that is "generally recognized as safe". MSG has been frequently disguised in products with names like "hydrolyzed vegetable protein" or "HVP", "yeast extract" or "autolyzed proteins". MSG has been used as a food additive for decades. During that time, the FDA has received many reactions from MSG including the following (Zeratsky, 2010):
  • Headache 
  • Flushing
  • Sweating
  • Facial pressure or tightness
  • Numbness, tingling or burning in face, neck and other areas
  • Rapid, fluttering heartbeats (heart palpitations)
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Weakness 

Below is a list of major sources of MSG as provided by Dr. Blaylock (1997, p. 255):
  • Monosodium Glutamate
  • Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (1)
  • Hydrolyzed Protein (1)
  • Hydrolyzed Plant Protein (1) 
  • Plant Protein Extract
  • Sodium Caseinate
  • Calcium Caseinate
  • Yeast Extract
  • Textured Protein
  • Autolyzed Yeast
  • Hydrolyzed Oat Flour

(1) Hydrolyzed protein is protein that has been broken down (hydrolyzed) into its component amino acids. According to the FDA, hydrolyzed protein is used to enhance flavor in a wide variety of processed food products, such as soups, sauces, chili, stews, hot dogs, gravies, seasoned snack foods, dips, and dressings. It is often blended with other spices to make seasonings that are used in or on foods. The chemical breakdown of proteins may result in the formation of free glutamate that joins with free sodium to form MSG. When added this way, the FDA does not require the labels to list MSG as an ingredient unless it is 100% pure MSG (Blaylock, 1997, p. 218).

What is cysteine?
Cysteine (l-cysteine) is a non-essential amino acid used by food manufacturers as a flavor enhancer for chicken stock and a conditioning agent for flour and bakery products. In large quantities, it acts as an excitotoxin. In laboratory tests, it showed the same pattern of neuron destruction as glutamate when injected in rats (Blaylock, 1997, pp. 182-183).  

Homocysteine, a metabolic derivative of cysteine, is also an excitotoxin. Elevated blood levels of homocysteine have been shown to be a major indicator of cardiovascular disease. Several studies have been done in which it was found that all Alzheimer's patients examined had elevated levels of homocysteine. (Blaylock, 1999).

Conclusion:  For good brain health, you are wise to completely avoid artificially sweetened products and most processed foods as these products are high in aspartame, MSG, and cysteine.  Check labels carefully.  

Note: If you would like to purchase Dr. Baylock's book, click on


 1. Blaylock, R.L., M.D., (1997). Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills. Santa Fe: Health Press.

 2. Blaylock, R.L., M.D., (1999) Food Additives, Excitotoxins and Degenerative Brain Disorders.        Retrieved June 7, 2010 from

 3. Evangelista, A.M., (2004, March). History of Aspartame. Retrieved May 20, 2010 from
 4. Hull, J., (2002), Dangers of Aspartame Poisoning. Retrieved May 20, 2010 from

 5. Zeratsky, K., R.D. (2010), Nutrition and Healthy Eating: Question: Monosodium glutamate (MSG): Is It Harmful? Retrieved June 7, 2010 from

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