Once again, I notice the ridiculousness of my life. But only when I am paying attention.
Continuing on with thoughts about Jonah Lehrer and his work…. I was reading the chapter on Auguste Escoffier in Proust Was a Neuroscientist, as I was downing a box of Cheez-Its. Basically, Lehrer was talking about how scientists back in the day discovered a fifth taste, on top of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, called umami. It turns out that the taste comes from a specific molecule, glutamic acid, that becomes L-glutamate (the specific taste we can taste) when it interacts with protein. This is why meat is so delicious. But the problem is that glutamate is an unstable protein, so it must be bound to something else. One Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, discovered in the early 1900s that it could be bound to salt. This is where MSG (monosodium glutamate) comes from.
Everyone has heard about MSG because it supposedly makes you feel all buzzy and sick after you eat too much of it at bad Chinese food restaurants. Apparently though, that is all a myth (according to Lehrer and recent research), and you are probably just making yourself sick by over-eating. At this point I realized I had eaten almost the entire box of Cheez-Its. I looked at the label on the box, and sure enough, it listed monosodium glutamate as one of the ingredients. I had unknowingly eaten the entire box (like 12 servings) due to this pesky, albeit delicious, molecule.
MSG has been used as a food additive for over 100 years. It used to be sold in America as Super Seasoning and Accent, since it’s so easy to add a dash to create the illusion of flavor. Since 1948 the amount of MSG added to foods has doubled every decade. I read one place that by 1972, 262,000 metric tons were being added to foods. (I hate statistics like that since I have no context and don’t know what it means, but let’s just say that it means there is A LOT of MSG being added to processed food… it’s in EVERYTHING). Lehrer notes that embarrassed food manufacturers often hide the addition of MSG by calling it autolyzed yeast extract, glutavene, calcium caseinate, or sodium caseinate on labels. It is also sometimes labeled as hydrolyzed vegetable protein, textured protein, hydrolyzed plant protein, soy protein extract, or ”natural flavoring.” However, there is apparently a difference between naturally occuring MSG and artificially created MSG (something to do with the amino acids being mirrors of each other – like putting the wrong glove on your hand), so that naturally occurring MSG is safer.
Glutamates are neurotransmitters linked to memory (they only discovered that it was a neurotransmitter in 1994). Apparently though, glutamates are actually toxic to neurons, and in excess, will kill the neurons (stroke victims have an excess of glutamate in their system). But when you eat that bag of chips, you are flooding your system with such an excess that it is causing the neurons to fire abnormally, over-exciting and killing them. MSG works to trick your brain into thinking that the food you are eating is nutritious, and high in protein since it occurs naturally in protein-rich foods when they are cooked. Also, the excess glutamate gets converted into GABA, another neurotransmitter, which is calming and affects the brain the same way that valium does. Finally, MSG also stimulates the pancreas to produce insulin, which acts like an ANTI-appetite suppressant. When the blood is flooded with insulin, the blood sugar drops, so you think you are still hungry an hour later. So basically, when you are eating something made with artificial MSG, your mind thinks that it is eating nutritious food, its calms you into a happy, valium-like lull, and you over-eat and are still hungry an hour later. Processed food manufacturers liberally mix in MSG to cut costs (they don’t have to put as much REAL protein in), and to keep people happily munching away, oblivious to the fact they are eating several portion sizes. No wonder America is obese. And I bet there are links to Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases since it relates to your memory.
With this knowledge of how my taste buds (and the Cheez-It manufacturers) had tricked me into over-eating, I put away the box. And proceeded to get a horrible stomach-ache for the rest of the night.
Bam! Cheez-It! becomes Bam! Stomach ache And hopefully not Bam! Alzheimer’s.