Anyone who eats processed foods is likely to find MSG (monosodium glutamate), aspartame, and saccharin on the ingredient labels in one form or another. Yet various experts and health advocacy organizations including Dr. Joseph Mercola and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, say you should avoid these three common food additives.
Yet as of today, MSG, aspartame, and saccharin are found in tens of thousands of foods, beverages, medications, and supplements that you and your family may be consuming right now. They are there because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given them GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status, while the roads these three substances traveled to get to that position were questionable at best.
Monosodium glutamate is a term used to describe a specific flavor-boosting ingredient. According to the FDA, “While technically MSG is only one of several forms of free glutamate used in foods consumers frequently use the term MSG to mean all free glutamate.”
Now that we have that distinction established, let’s look at how MSG made its way to the GRAS list. Profit is a huge factor, as the food and beverage producers love MSG because it allows them to cut down on the amount of real ingredients to enhance the flavor of their products and thus save money.
Red flags concerning the safety of MSG were raised in the 1960s, when researchers discovered that baby mice who were given the additive experienced brain damage as a result of destruction of their nerve cells. This finding, along with protests from the public, were enough to force companies that made baby food to stop using MSG in their products by the late 1970s.
At the same time, President Nixon ordered the FDA to review all of the items on the GRAS list. Even with the results of the baby mouse study, other research indicating that MSG was harmful, and anecdotal evidence suggesting the same, MSG was not banned or even regulated further by the FDA.
Since that time, other animal studies have highlighted the damage associated with use of MSG. One of the most recent studies, which appeared in Life Sciences, reported that monosodium glutamate induced depression-like and anxiety-like behaviors in young rats. It may do this by causing a dysfunction in the serotonergic system, which is involved in behaviors such as aggression.
Along with the negative reports from animal studies, use of MSG has been shown to cause a variety of side effects in people ranging from headache to nausea, burning sensation in the forearms and neck, weakness, nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, changes in heart rate, and wheezing. In his book In Bad Taste: The MSG Syndrome (1988), George R. Schwartz, MD, explained that these symptoms were caused by the free glutamic acid component in MSG or the processed free glutamic acid found in all hydrolyzed protein products. However, these and other study results have not been enough to have MSG withdrawn from consumer products.
Aspartame (i.e., Equal, NutraSweet) is an artificial sweetener that has been the subject of much controversy for years even though it has GRAS status.
A 1970s study conducted by Dr. John Olney highlighted how the artificial sweetener caused brain tumors in rats. This study as well as several others illustrated health hazards associated with use of the sweetener in animals.
Olney and James Turner, a food-additive activist and lawyer, filed a petition against aspartame’s maker (Searle), expressing their concerns. The FDA then issued a stay against approval of aspartame and an investigation was ordered. That investigation never happened, however, after delays allowed the statute of limitations regarding the charges against Searle to expire.
A subsequent review (1977-78) of aspartame studies by Searle, conducted by an FDA task force and pathologists, concluded that even though the company’s research had major problems concerning quality control, those issues did not affect the bottom line. But a few years later, a Public Board of Inquiry listened to Olney and determined that more research was needed to see if aspartame was associated with brain tumors. The board took away approval of aspartame.
Read more about how industry promotes aspartame
The battle was not over, however. In 1981, Arthur Hull Hayes, the FDA commissioner, consulted a panel of FDA scientists and an attorney and then approved aspartame for use in dry foods. Less than two years later, Hayes went to work for the public relations firm used by Searle. Conflict of interest, anyone?
Throughout the fight to clear the use of aspartame, various research teams fought back, noting that aspartame was linked to kidney tumors, leukemia, breast cancer, liver cancer, lung cancer, and lymphomas in lab animals. In some of these studies, the animals were observed for more than two years, which is the length of time industry-sponsored studies ran. That means the longer study time allowed scientists to monitor the animals for tumor development that would not have been identified in other studies.
Enter Harvard School of Public Health scientists who were the first to provide evidence that aspartame can cause an increased risk of cancer in men but not women. The authors suggested that men may have higher levels of an enzyme that transforms one of the waste products of aspartame (methanol) to formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen in humans. Aspartame use (in beverages) also has been associated with preterm delivery among pregnant women in a few studies.Thus far, the FDA has not been impressed.
Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low) was discovered accidentally by Constantin Fahlberg in 1879 while he was doing research on coal tar. It was several decades before controversy and arguments disrupted over the safety of saccharin, with both sides throwing lots of punches. In 1911, for example, the Food Inspection Decision 135 claimed that any foods containing the artificial sweetener were adulterated. That claim, however, was overturned the following year.
Until 1972, saccharin was classified as GRAS. However, a combination of the 1969 ban on cyclamates and the preliminary results of a study of saccharin and bladder cancer in animals prompted the FDA to remove it from GRAS on February 1, 1972 and to limit its use in foods. Once further research results were released, the FDA announced (April 14, 1977) of its intention to ban saccharin use in foods and beverages and to allow its use as an OTC drug.
By November 1977, Congressional and industry pressures lead to the passage of the Saccharin Study and Labeling Act, which stopped the FDA from banning the sweetener and instead required that all products containing saccharin carry a warning label: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.”
This warning no longer appears on products containing saccharin, however, because a 2000 law (Sweetness Act) repealed its requirement.
In 2001, the FDA declared saccharin safe for consumption, and nearly a decade later, the Environmental Protection Agency officially removed the artificial sweetener and its salts from its list of hazardous compounds and reported that saccharin is no longer considered to be of potential harm to human health.
Despite assurances from the EPA, FDA, and various experts regarding the safety of MSG, aspartame, and saccharin, the fact remains that these additives have been shown to cause adverse reactions in both animals and humans. Foods, beverages, and other products will continue to contain these substances as long as big industry and government regulators choose to look at their bottom line instead of the big health picture. Speak with your wallet and with your words by letting these entities know you will ban these substances from your food even if they won’t ban them from theirs.
[Editor's Note: If you want to eliminate unhealthy ingredients and chemical additives from your diet for good, click here to sign up for a Naturally Savvy Get Healthy Challenge.]
Food and Drug Administration, Backgrounder, 1995 Aug 31
Quines CB et al. Monosodium glutamate, a food additive, induces depressive-like and anxiogenic-like behaviors in young rats. Life Sciences 2014 Jun 27; 107(1-2): 27-31
Sand J. A short history of MSG. Gastronomica 2005 Fall; 5(4): 38-49
Truth in Labeling
Image: Robert Thomson