Glutamate is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter in the brain. It’s what’s called a “stimulating neurotransmitter,” one that causes neurons to fire excitedly. When it functions normally it is an important component of the brain. However, its cousin, monosodium glutamate, isn’t so natural.
Too Much Is Too Much
Some substances can suppress glutamate, such as alcohol. Ironically, this suppression is why we get a hangover after excessive alcohol consumption: we experience “glutamate rebound,” which causes a flood of glutamate in the brain, unleashing the classic pounding headache of the morning after.
While glutamate itself is important to brain function, excessive amounts (like that hangover rebound) can cause problems. And you may not know that adding MSG (monosodium glutamate) to your diet can have serious effects on your weight, even leading to obesity.
Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is often added to snack foods to enhance flavors. Some restaurants use it also. So when we eat these types of foods, we are adding more of this neurotransmitter to our nervous system than it actually needs. Research suggests that excessive amounts of MSG can overexcite neurons, causing damage.
Obesity: Monosodium Glutamate’s Killer App
MSG’s link to obesity isn’t exactly news. Studies going back to the sixties have demonstrated its connection with weight gain. A study at Washington University Medical School in 1968 showed that rats fed MSG became seriously obese.
While the impact of MSG on lab animals doesn’t necessarily mean MSG affects humans the same way, a study in 2009 carried out by the University of North Carolina looked at 750 men and women. Of the subjects who took MSG, three times as many became obese versus a control group.
MSG appears to target the appetite center in the hypothalamus, deep within the brain. So consuming foods with monosodium glutamate makes you more likely to eat more.
Some people claim to experience adverse reactions to monosodium glutamate, including headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and rapid heartbeat. However, research has not found a definitive link between MSG and these reactions, so the jury is still out on whether there is such a thing as MSG allergy or MSG sensitivity.
Monosodium glutamate isn’t always called MSG on food labels. Sometimes it goes under other names:
- Calcium caseinate
- Glutamic acid
- Hydrolyzed protein
- Sodium caseinate
- Yeast extract
MSG can be hard to avoid – even some health foods contain it. However, there are some simple guidelines you can follow.
These often use MSG as a flavor enhancer. So they also tend to be higher in calories than foods you prepare yourself – and you have direct control over the calorie content of foods you make.
Manufactured Snack Foods
Potato chips and other snacks contain significant amounts of MSG. Healthy alternatives are carrots, celery, and other vegetables – and these possess far fewer calories.
Seasonings are there to add flavor, and since MSG is an enhancer, many manufacturers include it. So check the label when you buy seasonings.
Processed meats such as prepared hamburger patties typically contain MSG. If you want a good hamburger, you’re much better off making the patties yourself. You can find recipes online, and you can manage the ingredients.
Cutting Monosodium Glutamate Cold
It’s wise to at the very least reduce your MSG consumption. If you plan to cut it entirely, consult with a dietician for a comprehensive list of foods to avoid.