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MSG’s EFFECT ON
Paper presented at The Weston A. Price Annual Convention
San Francisco, California November 8, 2008
Jack L. Samuels, President, Truth in Labeling Campaign
In providing you with information on MSG’s effect on neurological function, I will provide you with some of the history regarding MSG, some of what is now known regarding its toxic potential, particularly as it affects behavior and neurological function. I will also provide you with some of the questionable practices of the glutamate industry in their efforts to demonstrate the safety of their product, and the efforts currently underway to replace some or all MSG with a product that may be equally dangerous.
The food industry would like us to believe that MSG is an abbreviation for the food ingredient “monosodium glutamate” and nothing more. That is not true.
“MSG,” as defined by many MSG-sensitive people, is any free glutamic acid that is present in a proteinaceous food or food ingredient due to a manufacturing process or due to any fermentation. We refer to such free glutamic acid as “processed free glutamic acid (MSG),” and the FDA, in their August 31, 1995 publication, the Backgrounder, a publication that is still in use, supports our definition. In the balance of this presentation, any reference to MSG will mean processed free glutamic acid. It is found in the food ingredient “monosodium glutamate” and in other ingredients such as “yeast extract,” whose names give no clue to its presence.
There is a difference between processed free glutamic acid and free glutamic acid found in unprocessed and unfermented foods. There are by-products that scientists refer to as contaminants that are found in processed and/or fermented foods that contain processed free glutamic acid. These contaminants are not found in unprocessed, unfermented foods(1).
There is research that explains how the body handles truly natural free glutamic acid (L-glutamic acid), but little reported on contaminants, and nothing reported on processed free glutamic acid. It is known from research that it is L-glutamic acid that enhances the flavor of soups and fermented foods. It is also well known that people vary greatly in their tolerances for MSG, explaining why some MSG-sensitive people will react to some foods with MSG and not to others. An example would be a homemade soup cooked for three hours as compared to a soup cooked for 90 minutes.
Based on interaction with countless MSG-sensitive people, we know that adverse reactions only occur from foods that contain the contaminants mentioned above, providing that an individual exceeds his or her individual tolerance for MSG. In addition to processing and fermentation, some lengthy cooking processes, such as the making of soups and stews, and the use of crock pots, can break down protein and produce MSG (glutamic acid and contaminants). Also, the high heat used in the ultra-pasteurization of some dairy products is problematic for some MSG-sensitive people.
Consequently, MSG-sensitive people may react to soups, stews or crock pot preparations that contain amounts of MSG that exceed their tolerances for the substance. They have to rely heavily on foods that are solely made by nature, and, for example, should have no problem with raw milk. An individual with little tolerance for MSG may have to rely on healthy foods and avoid vitamins. Most, if not all vitamins are made from vegetables, and in the production of the vitamins care is not taken to remove all protein. The remaining protein is broken down, at least in part, during production, resulting in some small amounts of MSG, enough to affect the individual with little tolerance for MSG.
I shall begin this presentation with a number of points that are intended to provide you with some key points in the history of MSG, and the actions that the glutamate industry has taken to continue their source of income from MSG, a known neurotoxin. I have also included their efforts to market a new potentially toxic ingredient.
The MSG story began in 1908 when Kikunae Ikeda, Ph.D. discovered that it was glutamic acid in seaweed that was being used by Asians to enhance the flavor in recipes. In 1909, he patented the sodium salt of glutamic acid, monosodium glutamate, in England(2,3).
In 1909, Dr. Ikeda joined with a friend, Dr. Suzuki, to form Ajinomoto Co., Inc. (Ajinomoto) in Japan(2,3). It is reported that production of monosodium glutamate began in 1910. Today, Ajinomoto is recognized as the world’s largest producer of monosodium glutamate.
In 1948, the Chief Quartermaster of the Armed Forces presided over a meeting in Chicago, attended by representatives of many food industry giants who came to learn about an apparent wonder substance that improved the taste of Japanese army rations(2,4).
In 1956, Ajinomoto changed its method of producing monosodium glutamate in order to increase production and lower production costs(5).
In 1968, Ho Man Kwok, M.D., a pediatrician who immigrated to the United States from China, reported reactions when dining in certain Chinese restaurants. His Letter to the Editor was published in The New England Journal of Medicine under the caption “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”(6).
In 1969, John W. Olney, M.D. published a study in which he found that monosodium glutamate, given to mice, resulted in obesity and other neuroendocrine disorders due to lesions in the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus(7).
In 1969, the Ajinomoto-supported International Glutamate Technical Committee (IGTC) was incorporated as a nonprofit agency to lobby our government and health agencies on the safety of MSG, and to develop studies that would be supportive of their position.
In 1972, it was reported that 25% of the population experienced adverse reactions from monosodium glutamate, based on the amount then used in food in the United States(8). A 1975 study found the adverse reactions to occur in 30% of the population(9).
In 1977, The Glutamate Association (TGA) was formed as a subsidiary of the IGTC with the apparent purpose of acting as a public relations arm of the IGTC. Similar subsidiaries have been formed in other countries over the years. Many of the functions of TGA are now handled by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a seemingly independent organization used by the glutamate industry to do much of their public relations work.
In 1990, following the time that it became obvious that glutamate plays a role in many diseases, the National Institutes of Health held an international seminar in Bethesda, Maryland entitled The Glutamate Cascade: Common Pathways of Central Nervous System Disease States. The seminar appeared to be directed to encourage the development of glutamate blocking drugs.
In 1998, Senomyx, Inc. (Senomyx), located in San Diego, CA, was incorporated
in Delaware. The company’s goal was to develop a flavor enhancing MSG
substitute, a sugar substitute, and a salt substitute. The MSG substitute
is now on the market.
In 2006, worldwide consumption of monosodium glutamate was almost 4.4 million pounds, valued at 2.3 billion dollars(10). These figures do not include the MSG found in ingredients other than monosodium glutamate.
In 2007, Senomyx announced that Ajinomoto was awarded marketing rights for their MSG replacement product in the United States and some other countries. Europe and other countries are represented by Nestle.
The glutamate and food industries would like you to believe that adverse reactions from MSG are due to an allergy. That is not true. At one time the glutamate organizations advised people with adverse reactions to see an allergist, apparently realizing that traditional allergy tests would not find an allergy to MSG since the reactions are due to a sensitivity to MSG.
Allergies and sensitivities are different(11,12). Reactions to MSG are, with possible rare exception, due to a sensitivity to a substance that is toxic to one’s body. The intolerance for MSG is not an allergy, i.e., it is not IgE mediated. There are no antibodies involved with MSG intolerance.
One has to merely review the literature to be convinced that MSG is toxic. There is a large body of research that concludes that MSG is neurotoxic. How does it work in the body and what causes the adverse reactions that are being experienced by a very high percentage of our population? Why is it that the causes of many of the diseases believed to be associated with its use are unclear?
Although neuroscientists have seen the effects of monosodium glutamate and glutamic acid on the brains of animals, the fact is that they have not determined the mechanism or mechanisms that cause people to experience adverse reactions from MSG. Yet, neuroscience has come a long way, continuing to find new information that may answer that question in the relatively near future. In the meantime, ongoing science is providing a clearer picture of the dangers of MSG.
Not many years ago, I would have stood before you and only explained that when you ingest MSG, some of the glutamic acid enters your blood supply directly from your mouths, and that some could affect the brain. It had been found that the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus could be affected, resulting in brain lesions that resulted in obesity and neuroendcrine disorders. Although this is all still true, scientists have found additional information relating to the body’s handling of glutamic acid.
It was known early on that the glutamic acid molecule, as well as the 19 other most commonly referred to amino acids, are small(12,13), and that NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) receptors to which the excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamic acid, binds, are found in the brain.
As previously noted, in 1969, John W. Olney, M.D., found that monosodium glutamate caused lesions in the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus, resulting in obesity and other neuroendocrine disorders(7). Through the years, he conducted many studies on the effects of monosodium glutamate. His studies indicated that the very young were most at risk because the blood brain barrier, a barrier that separates blood from brain tissue, was not always fully developed in the young. Dr. Olney also found that the elderly were at high risk from monosodium glutamate because of the fact that aging, and certain diseases, (such as, but not limited to, diabetes and hypertension), and neurologic events, such as stroke, could compromise the blood brain barrier. Dr. Olney’s findings were confirmed through the years by countless neuroscientists. His early findings led to a congressional hearing in 1970, leading to the voluntary removal of monosodium glutamate from baby food by producers of these products. (The fact is, baby food producers replaced monosodium glutamate with MSG-containing hydrolyzed vegetable protein, but that was also removed in 1978.)
In brief, the cause of MSG-induced lesions, (the death of neurons), is that ingestion of MSG results in an excess of calcium entering calcium channels, affecting the neurons(14). Although research on the subject continues, it appears clear that there is a relationship between calcium overload and neurotoxicity(15,16,17). (It should be noted that this does not relate to whether or not you use dairy or calcium products.)
The glutamate industry contended for years that Olney’s findings were wrong because the blood brain barrier protected brain neurons from monosodium glutamate. This is totally incorrect because neuroscientists have confirmed that the blood brain barrier is subject to damage from aging, injury, disease, and more, and is “leaky” at best throughout life(18,19), It is inconceivable to me that dietary supplements can override any, or all, of these reasons for exposure of the brain.
We have often been told that the blood brain barrier is fully formed at about 2 days after birth. Discussion with researchers has indicated that the time of full development of the blood brain barrier may occur at varying times in infants. The subject of delayed development of the blood brain barrier is of special interest to the Truth in Labeling Campaign in that we have had contact with a number of parents of children with seizures who have been found to be acutely sensitive to MSG. However, according to their parents, their children’s sensitivities lessened once they went through puberty. This leads us to believe that full development of the blood brain barrier in some children may be delayed up to puberty.
Through the years, it has also been found that glutamic acid could pass through the placental barrier(20,21) with the possible consequence of a fetus being affected from MSG.
In 1996, it was found by Said et al. that NMDA receptors were not limited to the central nervous system. He identified NMDA receptors in the lung(22). Now it is also known that there are three major types of glutamate receptors throughout the body, and that although the NMDA receptors may be of most importance, there are also kainate receptors and AMPA receptors to which glutamic acid binds(23).
Although we have, for years, believed that monosodium glutamate and glutamic acid were affecting the central nervous system, identified as the brain and spinal cord, neuroscience has developed to the point of recognizing that there is also a peripheral nervous system where glutamic acid plays a role. Work on this subject is ongoing(24). It is becoming increasingly clear that MSG reactions may be related to neurological function throughout the body.
Why are people reacting to MSG? As stated earlier, neuroscientists have not found the reason for MSG-induced adverse reactions. There are, however, a number of theories that have been offered.
We have often read that an excess of glutamate will affect the balance of glutamate in the body and that the imbalance will result in adverse reactions. We find no research to support this theory.
We also hear from the FDA and the food industry that no one will react to less than three grams of MSG. Yet, I, and many other people with whom I have communicated, have reacted to almost immeasurably small amounts of MSG. A high percentage of MSG-sensitive people will react to Accent, a brand of pure monosodium glutamate, and to canned soups. The amount of MSG per serving of Accent is one half gram, and the commercial soups we have had tested had in the area of three quarters of a gram of MSG. We have found no products on grocers’ shelves that have as much as three grams of MSG per serving.
The fact is that everyone is different. People with allergies and/or sensitivities vary in their tolerances for offending substances. It is understandable that some will react to minute amounts.
The Expert Committee of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) released an FDA funded study dated July, 1995 in which they stated that they found “scientifically verifiable evidence” that plus or minus 3 grams of MSG in the absence of food was needed to cause an MSG reaction. This conclusion was based on a study that used 3 grams of MSG(25). The fact is that the FASEB study did not reference any study that attempted to determine the lowest level of MSG that would cause an adverse reaction. To our knowledge, there is no such study in the literature, and, again, we know of no processed food on grocers’ shelves that has as much as 3 grams of MSG per serving.
FASEB reached no conclusion relating to the cause of MSG reactions(25).
Although it is likely that there is more than one cause for MSG reactions, some people contend that an MSG sensitivity is due to a deficiency of vitamin B in the body. That theory may be good for the supplement industry, but there is no basis for that claim in the literature, and I know of no MSG-sensitive person who has resolved their MSG sensitivity by supplementing vitamin B. Some people, including two physicians I know, tried to take high levels of vitamin B for a period of time, and had no relief from their MSG sensitivities.
Another theory is that MSG affects the vagus nerve(26), a cranial nerve that has the most extensive distribution of the cranial nerves, affecting many body functions.
The Truth in Labeling Campaign has interacted with countless MSG-sensitive people over the years. It has been noted that MSG-sensitive people only react to free glutamic acid that has been freed from protein through a manufacturing process or through fermentation, providing that the amount of free glutamic acid exceeds their tolerances for MSG. Realizing that the glutamic acid in higher organisms is L-glutamic acid, and that any L-glutamic acid freed from protein through a manufacturing process or through fermentation will be accompanied by unwanted by-products, called contaminants, we theorize that it is one or more of the contaminants produced in the freeing of glutamic acid from protein prior to digestion that may be causing the adverse reactions that people experience. Further discussion of this subject will be found at www.truthinlabeling.org/manufac.html.
Now, another theory as to why people experience MSG reactions has come to light. As explained above, we now know that there are glutamate receptors throughout the body. We also now know through the work of Purcell et al. regarding autism, that some people may have defects in the AMPA-type glutamate receptors(27). It may be possible that a defect in a glutamate receptor, or in the glutamate transport system, is responsible for adverse reactions.
Regardless of the mechanism or mechanisms that result in adverse reactions from MSG, it is evident from the countless reports received by the Truth in Labeling Campaign since 1994, that people who experience adverse reactions from MSG have varying reactions, but typically the same reaction each time they react. It is as if MSG finds the weak link in one’s body.
It appears that once people experience an adverse reaction from MSG, they are MSG-sensitive from that point forward. Furthermore, it appears that once people become MSG-sensitive, their tolerance for MSG becomes less and less over time. It is almost as if overexposure to MSG destroys some protective mechanism in the body. Clearly, as the level of MSG increases in our food supply, more and more people are becoming MSG sensitive.
Any of the literature that we have found that contends that MSG is safe has
been produced by the glutamate industry or their agents. We can defend
our position that all of these studies are flawed to the point of being
worthless. Also, we have written proof in our files that most of the
double-blind studies utilized aspartame in placebos. Aspartame is a sweetener
that will duplicate the reactions from MSG in most people, providing that they
ingest amounts that exceed their tolerances for MSG and/or aspartame.
About 40% of aspartame is aspartic acid. Neuroscientists have found, in
animal studies, that aspartic acid and glutamic acid act in the same manner in
the brain, and will act in an additive fashion(28).
Based on our interaction with MSG/aspartame sensitive people over the past 18
years, those who react to MSG typically react similarly to aspartame and
aspartame sensitive people typically react similarly to MSG.
The most recent glutamate industry study on monosodium glutamate found no difference between reactions of subjects fed monosodium glutamate and subjects fed something called a placebo. Initially the study used aspartame in placebos, but presumably the placebos were modified after disclosure of that fact. It wasn’t that no one reacted to the monosodium glutamate in the modified placebo study. It was because there were as many reactions to the placebo as there were to the monosodium glutamate that the study authors concluded that monosodium glutamate is safe. The modified placebo described in the research report contained hidden MSG. The FDA, didn’t seem to be concerned and continues to rely on such studies as proof that MSG is safe.
There are numerous scientific studies that link MSG to some very serious and debilitating medical conditions. One has only to review studies involving monosodium glutamate or glutamic acid, and you will be shocked to see the number of medical conditions linked to this neurotoxin. You will also be disappointed in our federal agencies such as the FDA, USDA, EPA and CDC for their lack of action on the MSG issue.
Today, it is easy to access such studies at MEDLINE, a comprehensive source of life sciences and biomedical bibliographic information, with nearly eleven million records. It is available through the National Library of Medicine at www.pubmed.gov.
I could list evidence of the many medical conditions associated with glutamic acid, but for purposes of this paper, I shall only give you some idea of its effect on the health of our nation. Glutamic acid is associated with the recent increases in neurodegenerative disease. It has been linked to Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Multiple Sclerosis, and Huntington’s Disease. Research links MSG to migraine headaches, heart irregularities, seizures, asthma, sudden death of young athletes, ADD, ADHD, and more. There appears to be no question that MSG is the main contributor to the obesity epidemic, primarily due to the brain damage that MSG causes, and there is growing evidence that it is the probable cause for the diabetes epidemic, and the high incidence of autism. A recent study by He et al. also confirms that daily use of MSG will lead to weight gain.
MSG, in my opinion, is the cause of the epidemic of irritable bowel syndrome, and before long, will be shown to be directly related to neurodegenerative diseases.
When asked to present this paper, I was asked about the effect of MSG on psychiatric conditions. One does not typically think of MSG as a trigger for psychiatric conditions. However, there is a clear link of glutamic acid to Schizophrenia, leading to the present development of a glutamate blocker for treatment of Schizophrenia.
One has to merely go back to a 1978 Letter to the Editor of the New England Journal of Medicine from Arthur D. Colman, M.D., a psychiatrist, to read of a reported psychiatric link to MSG ingestion. He reported that his wife “...became profoundly depressed, with drawn facies [appearance], motor slowing, doubt-ridden, gloomy fantasies, and occasional unprecipitated outbursts of rage” lasting for about two weeks following ingestion of MSG. He also noted acute MSG reactions in his nine year old son(29).
H. J. Roberts, M.D., author of many books on the dangers of aspartame, has stated that he analyzed 1,200 people that he treated for aspartame intolerance. He found the following:
Marked personality change----------14%
Recent severe insomnia--------------14%
Severe aggravation of phobias------- 6%
Dr. Roberts also claimed that some of his patients exhibited Bipolar Disorder.
The Truth in Labeling Campaign has not kept statistics, but has received reports of similar reactions from MSG.
In an August 22, 2007 Press Release from the National Institutes of Mental Health, it was announced that the first study, conducted at Duke University, had been published “...directly linking OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder]-like behaviors to abnormalities in the glutamate system in a specific brain circuit”(30).
Earlier this year, Newsweek published an article entitled “What Addicts Need” by Raina Kelley. This article regarding addictions, reported on two drugs, Campral and Vivitrol that are now being used for the treatment of alcoholism(31). Based on a discussion I had with a representative of the producer of Campral and the Web site of Vivitrol, these are glutamate blocking drugs that have had some success with the treatment of alcoholism. According to the individual I spoke with regarding Campral, chronic use of alcohol results in increased levels of glutamic acid in a portion of the brain due to an effect on glutamate receptors, excesses that are relieved through the use of their drug.
We have found that almost all MSG-sensitive people report a mood change from MSG. We have listed anxiety attacks, as reported by Dr. Roberts, as “anxiety and panic attacks.” We are convinced that MSG disrupts sleep, and that many people experience severe exhaustion after ingesting MSG, a condition that is often misdiagnosed by some physicians as depression. We also receive reports of depression and rage.
There are additional reports of relatively common MSG-induced reactions reported to the Truth in Labeling Campaign that have led to a referral to a neurologist or psychiatrist. These include memory problems, disorientation, loss of balance, lethargy, slurred speech, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, and learning disorders.
It is also clear from media reports, studies by researchers, and reports of governmental agencies, that the incidence of many of the above listed conditions are increasing dramatically in our country.
It is of interest that pharmaceutical companies are actively developing glutamate blocking drugs. At present, there is a glutamate blocking drug, Namenda, that is actively being used to treat moderate to severe cases of Alzheimer’s Disease. There is another glutamate blocking drug, Rilouzole (Rilutek), that is being used for ALS and Huntington’s Disease; and a glutamate blocking drug will be introduced in the relatively near future for treatment of Schizophrenia.
It makes no sense at all that while the FDA is approving glutamate blocking drugs in one department of the agency, The FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition is busy approving food ingredients that contain MSG, and disregarding the mislabeling of MSG on many products.
I suggest that you should make every effort to avoid MSG and aspartame, especially if you are pregnant. It should be noted that even FASEB, in an FDA funded study dated July, 1992, entitled Safety of Amino Acids Used as Dietary Supplements stated that it would be prudent to avoid free glutamic acid in supplements for infants, children, pregnant women, women of child bearing age, and people with mood disorders. Although it is getting increasingly difficult to avoid MSG, it is still possible, but you will have to avoid almost all processed foods. A list of the most common sources of MSG in processed foods will be found at www.truthinlabeling.org/hiddensources.html. People with little tolerance for MSG should also refer to www.truthinlabeling.org/addendum.html.
Without question, MSG is causing a number of health problems in our country, and throughout the world. Because of the effects of MSG and the related costs, our government will eventually be forced to take action on the MSG issue. When this happens, even we who are familiar with the toxicity of MSG will be surprised to learn the extent of the health problems caused by MSG. The only question that remains is when will our government wake up and take action on the MSG issue. Lack of action is not an option. As Dr. Oz stated on the July 9, 2008 Oprah show: The next generation will have a lower life expectancy than that of their parents.
The fact that Ajinomoto, the worlds largest producer of monosodium glutamate, has contracted to market the MSG-substitute, Senomyx, in the USA and some other countries leads me to believe that they know the time is coming when their product will be banned, and controls placed on the use of hidden sources of MSG.
Unfortunately, Senomyx, the MSG replacement product, produced in a laboratory, appears to work in the body in the same way as does MSG, and it will be hidden in food under the label descriptor “artificial flavor” or “artificial flavoring.” From my point of view, it has not been properly tested, and its use further indicates the weakness of our food regulatory agency, the FDA. Even though it is a chemical preparation, it will be used in food unchallenged by the FDA. Yet, if it were designated as a pharmaceutical, it would have taken up to 10 years or more to be approved, at a cost of over 100 million dollars.
The presence of MSG in processed foods must be disclosed on product labels.
Since one cannot expect to get the truth about food ingredients from food
companies and the FDA, it is imperative that the FDA require that all processed
foods, when introduced and/or when a recipe for an existing product is changed,
be analyzed for free glutamic acid, post production. If free glutamic
acid is found to be present in a processed product, the amount of free glutamic
acid should be disclosed on the food label as “MSG,” with the amount present
stated in milligrams.
In the meantime, you can help to resolve the MSG issue by spreading the word of the toxicity of MSG and by writing your congressperson and senators in Washington to insist that something be done to fully disclose all free glutamic acid on the labels of all processed foods. It makes no sense at all that people are taking glutamate blocking drugs for the treatment of certain neurodegenerative diseases and addictions, and soon will be taking such drugs for Schizophrenia, when the Food and Drug Administration refuses to require the disclosure of free glutamic acid in processed foods.
Before closing, I would like to briefly cover one additional subject.
Many of you will have noted that I indicated a concern regarding fermented products, recognizing that many fermented products are recommended by The Weston A. Price Foundation. I should also state that the current most common method of making the food ingredient “monosodium glutamate” is described as bacterial fermentation.
When a food that contains protein is fermented prior to ingestion, the protein is broken down, at least in part, into its constituent amino acids and other nutrients. Therefore, the amino acids and nutrients are more quickly available to the body than if the food had to be digested or broken down in the body. The extent of the breakdown is dependent on the extent of the fermentation and the protein being fermented. The amino acids will invariably be accompanied by contaminants, some of which may be toxic to the body. In almost all cases, free glutamic acid will be the most prevalent amino acid that is freed.
I am exquisitely sensitive to MSG, with virtually no tolerance for it in any amount, and cannot tolerate any fermented foods. When younger, I did eat fermented products. However, for some reason, I developed a serious intolerance for MSG in its many forms, and could no longer tolerate any fermented foods. As discussed in this paper, maybe the overexposure of MSG and other toxins to my system damaged some important part of my system that should allow me to handle fermented foods.
The fact that The Weston A. Price Foundation invited me to speak, knowing my position on fermented foods, speaks to the integrity of your organization and the organization’s interest and desire in sharing with you all views regarding the food we eat. I greatly appreciate this openness.
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