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This Artificial Ingredient Is In Almost Everything You Eat: Why Aren’t You Avoiding It?

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Under the impression that a fast food milkshake is simply ice cream and milk? Think again.

Today, chemical additives, preservatives, and other artificial ingredients are at an all-time high. You might have heard about Subway’s move to ban azodicarbonamide, a substance commonly found in yoga mats, from their bread. But there are still plenty of other companies that use the substance in their food — and they haven’t been attested for yet.

I know you’re thinking: ‘The FDA approves these substances. Isn’t that enough?’ Just because an artificial ingredient is deemed safe, doesn’t mean that you’re obligated to consume it; especially if new evidence suggests that it might be hazardous to your health. In light of that fact, we’re launching a multi-part series of chemical and ingredient exposés, each article explaining in detail the structure of the substance, its role in the food world, and why you should (or shouldn’t) steer clear of it.

First up, an ingredient that synonymous with Chinese cuisine and prevalent in over 3/4 of processed foods — Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG.

 

The History of Artificial Ingredients and Chemical Additives


Essentially, our current food trends about going organic and avoiding GMOs are an attempt to undo the damage we’ve done in the last 60 years.

Did you know that genetically modified food (GMO) was a foreign concept to our great grand-parents? That is, organic food was the standard a mere few generations ago. In the 1950’s and 60’s, populations were soaring. Thoughts of global famine, malnutrition, and overpopulation completely consumed the nutrition science world. But what if in 1950-something, I told you there was a way to make fruits and veggies stay fresher longer? Or make cows produce more milk? Or make chickens bigger? With famine and all sorts of other international crises on mind, wouldn’t you jump at the chance?

Enter the world of genetically modified food. In a few short years, scientists developed thousands of additives, preservatives, and other chemicals to prolong food’s shelf life and improve food quality. At first, scientists genuinely believed they were doing noble work. They thought they were saving lives. Some scientists still do. Check out Monsanto’s appeal to fighting world hunger.

Essentially, our current food trends about going organic and avoiding GMOs are an attempt to undo the damage we’ve done in the last 60 years. It seems counterintuitive, but as our knowledge of food progresses, we realize we weren’t designed to consume chemicals produced in a lab. Instead, it’s best to eat whole foods in their natural form without additives and preservatives.

 

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): The Basics & Its Link to Weight Gain


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Photo: Good.is

No longer is Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) something you need to worry about only at a Chinese restaurant. Invented in the early 1900’s, Japanese scientists isolated this amino acid in a lab, coming across it accidentally. They determined that when added to food, MSG created a savory or umami flavor.

What’s umami exactly? Known as the sixth and often unknown flavor profile, umami is pretty difficult to describe. By itself, it doesn’t really taste all that great. But have you ever had something salty that instantly awakens your throat, makes your mouth water, and makes you want to eat more? That my friends, is the taste of umami. Ketchup and bacon are prime examples.

Of course, you could say that about many foods. You could say that donuts give you that umami feeling, or that potato chips have an umami vibe. What’s the difference between umami and personal preference? The difference is that food companies can now use a chemical additive — MSG — to make foods taste more palatable; many of which you otherwise wouldn’t like. This isn’t to say that food has some kind of hypnotic control over you. However, I’m sure there have been plenty of times where you’ve overindulged in something rich and decadent after telling yourself earlier you’d only have a bite. Chances are these foods have MSG. By adding MSG to many food products, food scientists are able to create a borderline insatiable need for certain products, making you eat (and buy) more and more. There have even been studies showing that certain people are more sensitive to the effects of MSG, and that MSG is linked to weight gain and obesity.1

MSG’s dirty little secret has prompted many food companies to put it in practically everything they make; so much so that MSG is now in approximately 80% of all processed foods. It’s is in the Doritos you ate at the tailgate, the frozen pizza you baked for dinner the other week, and even the taco seasoning you used last night. Restaurants and fast food chains aren’t immune to the MSG frenzy either. Check out this fantastic list of common fast foods that have MSG. MSG has dozens of other names that it goes by, making it difficult to detect if you’re not accustomed to its multiple personalities.


 

MSG and Lab Testing


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In one study, scientists wanted to determine if probiotics had any effect on MSG-induced obesity in rats. But in order to see if the probiotics worked, they first needed to make the rats obese. After all, it’s not like there are a ton of naturally obese rats crawling around in the wild.

The answer — inject the rats with MSG. Not only did body weight increase by 7.9%, but it also led to significant increases in cholesterol and triglyceride levels.2 The worst part about this study is that MSG’s link to weight gain isn’t even being discovered. It’s almost as if MSG feeding is so effective at inducing obesity that scientists merely use the MSG technique as standard protocol for creating a fat animal.

And yet, the FDA still labels MSG as safe for human consumption. See the hypocrisy?

 

Tips for Avoiding MSG


Although MSG adopts many different disguises, it’s totally possible to eat less of it or eliminate it altogether. Try these tips for reducing your MSG intake:

  • Avoid processed food — Sure, this sounds super simple. You already know by now that you should avoid chips, candies, cookies, and all other junk food. If you MUST consume some kind of snack, opt for an organic company/food product.
  • Cook at home more — You probably didn’t think twice about using taco seasoning for Taco Tuesday. But it’s loaded with MSG. Try making your own seasonings/spice blends that don’t have loads of artificial ingredients. I personally recommend making large batches and storing them in your pantry for multiple uses. Fast food and chain restaurants often have food loaded with MSG, too.
  • Know the code names for MSG — Study the lists of MSG pseudonyms. Read food labels carefully and critically when looking for signs of MSG. When learning about chemical additives like MSG, I spent a month carrying a paper list of alternative names for MSG to make sure I knew all variations of it. It takes some extra time and effort, but once you learn about MSG there’s no turning back.

 

Wrap Up


MSG is one of the most widely used chemicals in food. Yet few people really know about it or take the time to avoid it. We need to stop thinking of MSG as an ingredient only in Asian cuisine and realize it’s in WAY more food than most people realize. With this arsenal of MSG tips and info, you’ll have a much easier time avoiding the dangerous chemical on a regular basis.

Taji Mortazavi

Taji Mortazavi

Contributing Author at LeanItUP
Taji Mortazavi is the founder of We're Talking About Food. Devoted to democratizing health, Taji believes that anyone CAN live a healthy lifestyle regardless of medical condition, career, budget or other secondary factors.

Besides contributing to Lean it UP, Taji has been published for her health and fitness advice in journals like Thought Catalog. Taji has been supported by numerous health and fitness companies such as Navitas Naturals, Glutino, and Holystic Hut. Support Taji by visiting her site and finding her on Facebook and Twitter.
Taji Mortazavi
Follow Lean It UP on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest for real-time fitness/nutrition tips, advice, info and updates.

 
 

References, Notes, Links

  1. M. Yanina Pepino et al. Obese Women Have Lower Monosodium Glutamate Taste Sensitivity and Prefer Higher Concentrations Than Do Normal-weight Women. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 May; 18(5): 959–965. []
  2. Oleksandr A Savcheniuk et al. The efficacy of probiotics for monosodium glutamate-induced obesity: dietology concerns and opportunities for prevention. EPMA J. 2014; 5(1): 2. []