By: Dr. John Bagnulo, Director of Nutrition

The next time you see the words yeast extract, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, or "natural flavors" think: "health hazard." If you are not familiar with these industry code words, they are used on many "natural food" labels for getting around words like MSG and free glutamic acid.

The high concentration of free glutamate and aspartate in products such as MSG and NutraSweet are physiologically incompatible with the metabolic limits inherent to our neurons (brain cells). Labeled excitotoxins because of their unique role in signaling within areas of the neuron and because of their influence on the movement of neurotransmitters, these two amino acids are best eaten as part of a whole food or intact protein, not part of some partially digested or fermented protein that has produced large quantities of free amino acids. The difference in how they enter circulation when they are bound to other amino acids as an intact protein is very different than how rapidly they reach neurons when they are "free" and added as flavor enhancers.

Much has been written about both aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG) in the last two decades. While the industry offers rebuttals centered around areas of health that are not affected, peer-reviewed research has repeatedly shown that there are unique neurological consequences to each.

It really comes down to the simple fact that each of these food additives contain pharmacological levels of unique amino acids that our brain cells are incapable of dealing with. When our brain cells are exposed to high levels of either free-glutamate or aspartate, they simultaneously usher in large amounts of calcium. This influx of calcium causes a destruction of many aspects of the neurons’ health, most notably the mitochondria.

Mitochondria are where cellular ability to repair and maintain function starts and ends. Without healthy mitochondria, brain cells no longer have the supply of energy needed to meet cellular requirements. Though some individuals may be much more sensitive than others, experiencing migraine headaches, brain fog, and hangover-like symptoms, animal research suggests that no one is completely spared with high levels of glutamate or aspartate exposure. When investigators look at things under a microscope, there is a distinct pattern of damage to neurons.

In addition to avoiding those foods that openly label their ingredients with the words "contains MSG" or "artificially sweetened/contains aspartame (NutraSweet)," also avoid foods that contain the following ingredients, especially if you have noticed brain-related symptoms to additives or foods in the past:

  • HYDROLYZED SOY PROTEIN
  • AUTOLYZED YEAST EXTRACT
  • NATURAL YEAST EXTRACT
  • HYDROLYZED VEGETABLE PROTEIN
  • NATURAL CHICKEN FLAVOR
  • CALCIUM CASEINATE
  • SOY SAUCE
  • SOY SAUCE FLAVOR
  • NATURALLY HYDROLYZED AMINO ACIDS
  • FISH SAUCE
  • BEEF FLAVOR
  • BOUILLON AND BOUILLON CUBES
  • TEXTURIZED VEGETABLE PROTEIN (TVP)
  • SOY PROTEIN
  • MILK POWDER

In addition, many individuals have adverse reactions to the glutamates found in hard cheeses and cured meats. Both of these undergo significant protein digestion at the hands of microbes (cheese) or oxidation (heavily aged or old meat).

Avoiding these foods and "stealth" ingredients can help keep your brain firing in all the right ways.

Dr. John Bagnulo is the Director of Nutrition at Functional Formularies and leads nutrition research and development initiatives. Learn more about Dr. Bagnulo here.