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I didn't intend on eating the Girl Scout Cookies. I just couldn't resist throwing money at the sweet, smiling faces of America's future leaders. So when my hand hit air at the bottom of the first sleeve, just 15 minutes after cracking into them, I started to wonder if the Girl Scouts were onto something.

The little peanut butter sandwiches were nothing more than mediocre; bland and crystalline, with a sweet saltiness that entered only after sufficient mastication. If there is one profound wisdom I've gained from writing Wellness, it is the knowledge that sugar is evil, and definitely addictive—but not like this. I have discipline. There was something else in these cookies that I had to have. But what?

It was a question for Katherine Reid, Ph.D., biochemist and founder of the nonprofit organization Unblind My Mind, whose mission is to raise awareness about what's in our food, and how it might contribute to the diseases plaguing Americans. If you'd like to earn a Reading Food Labels badge, read on:

“Processed foods in general, as a food supply, contain over 450 various FDA-approved food additives,” says Reid. “Free glutamate is in over 95% of processed foods, and there are over 50 different ways that free glutamate can be labeled.”

Free glutamate, we surmised, may very well have been the culprit for my cookie monster behavior. A neurotransmitter that plays an important role in learning and memory, glutamate is generated from processing any protein in processed food, from gluten to casein. “Once the protein is broken down, the glutamate is free to bind to calcium, potassium, magnesium or the most common ion in our foods—sodium—making monosodium glutamate, or MSG,” says Reid. “These will all react in our body similarly.”

Of course, this non-essential amino acid does not have a taste in and of itself; it simply excites our neurons in a way that makes us think the food tastes good—and that's exactly why manufacturers add it. The last thing I want to do is throw the Girl Scouts under the bus, but a careful dissection of the ingredients found glutamate hidden in several areas, from “enriched flour” and artificial flavors, to the five iterations of corn (corn sugar, corn flour, corn syrup, corn syrup solids and corn starch). It's also found in 30 to 60 percent of “natural” flavors.

“Anything that is enriched is a red flag, because they don't tell you how they made these vitamins that they are putting in, and often times it's a fermentation process, and free glutamate contaminant may be in those vitamins,” says Reid, who lists over 50 glutamate-containing ingredients on her website, unblindmymind.org.

The human body has glutamate receptors all throughout it, from the tongue to the digestive tract. These receptors signal the protein level of the food we're about to send down the hatch—and our digestive systems respond accordingly by producing the correct enzymes. And therein lies the problem: “Glutamate occurs in whole foods at a fraction of a percent, but a western diet high in glutamate can over stimulate these receptors, sending signals that are not representative of food content,” says Reid.

Sending the wrong signals to our digestive tracts is a surefire way to throw off our  intestinal flora—and constipation and diarrhea are just immediate consequences.

Reid joins a growing number of scientists who are finding connections between the imbalance of our microscopic ecosystems and the diseases plaguing modern society, from obesity and diabetes to heart disease, cancer and even autism. This last one is where Reid's food label research began: her daughter, now 7, was diagnosed with autism at age 4. By removing all food additives (and all processed foods) from her daughter's diet, her behavior improved drastically and she is now a fully functioning first grader.

“A lot of people say 'oh, she outgrew autism,'” says Reid, “but we have to keep a controlled diet or those behaviors return… I almost do think that she's probably got some sort of microflora that can just grow and thrive if she's not careful with her food.”

Katherine Reid, Ph.D., will give a TEDx talk about the effects of food on the brain on Friday, March 8 at Hotel Paradox in Santa Cruz.

Have a Wellness question or idea? Email wellnesscolumn@gmail.com.

  • http://www.indiajoze.com Jozseph Schultz

    I believe you are mistaken about the amount of free glutamates available in “natural” foods, organic or otherwise. Just about any form of cooking or fermentation will create free glutamates from the common glutamic acid found in many proteins.
    We are exposed to free glutamate from childhood. The most abundant amino acid in breast milk has 0.02% of glutamate, so a 5kg baby who takes 800 ml of breast milk a day, consumes 0.16g of glutamate. “The amount of glutamate consumed by babies that only breastfeed is equivalent to the MSG of Korea or Taiwan,” the researcher concludes.
    Total consumption of glutamate (both free and joined to proteins) in an adult diet amounts to around 10 grams a day (100-150mg/kg/day assuming a weight of 70kg), whereas the consumption of glutamate as a condiment in the form of MSG varies from 0.4g in the US, 1.5g in Japan and Korea and 3g in Taiwan (from 6 to 43mg/kg/day). MSG consumption in Spain has not been estimated, but the United Kingdom is calculated to consume 0.6 g on average and 2g in a minority segment of the population (three times more than average). http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/10/091009092344.htm

    • http://www.santacruz.com/2014/03/04/the_dirty_secrets_of_processed_food/ John Kauffman

      You have in quotes: “The amount of glutamate consumed by babies that only breastfeed is equivalent to the MSG of Korea or Taiwan,” followed by: the researcher concludes, but never state who the researcher is.
      Seems as though you are pulling numbers from outer space. If you are going to quote someone, let us know who you are quoting.

  • http://www.indiajoze.com Jozseph Schultz

    I believe you are mistaken about the amount of free glutamates available in “natural” foods, organic or otherwise. Just about any form of cooking or fermentation will create free glutamates from the common glutamic acid found in many proteins.
    We are exposed to free glutamate from childhood. The most abundant amino acid in breast milk has 0.02% of glutamate, so a 5kg baby who takes 800 ml of breast milk a day, consumes 0.16g of glutamate. “The amount of glutamate consumed by babies that only breastfeed is equivalent to the MSG of Korea or Taiwan,” the researcher concludes.
    Total consumption of glutamate (both free and joined to proteins) in an adult diet amounts to around 10 grams a day (100-150mg/kg/day assuming a weight of 70kg), whereas the consumption of glutamate as a condiment in the form of MSG varies from 0.4g in the US, 1.5g in Japan and Korea and 3g in Taiwan (from 6 to 43mg/kg/day). MSG consumption in Spain has not been estimated, but the United Kingdom is calculated to consume 0.6 g on average and 2g in a minority segment of the population (three times more than average). http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/10/091009092344.htm

    • http://www.santacruz.com/articles/the_dirty_secrets_of_processed_food.html John Kauffman

      You have in quotes: “The amount of glutamate consumed by babies that only breastfeed is equivalent to the MSG of Korea or Taiwan,” followed by: the researcher concludes, but never state who the researcher is.
      Seems as though you are pulling numbers from outer space. If you are going to quote someone, let us know who you are quoting.