Neurotoxins are all around us, but are especially common in popular processed and prepared foods. Learn ways to avoid them with healthy alternatives.
You’d like to think that our food supply is protected from neurotoxins — substances known to harm the central nervous system.
But the US Food and Drug Administration allows 3,000 food additives to be used in the US food supply and relatively few have been tested for safety. (1)
And no one knows what they do when they are used together.
Unfortunately, a handful of food additives are well-documented neurotoxins, but are still found in popular foods even in relatively healthy diets.
Here is our “Top 5 Hit List” of neurotoxins found in foods that have been linked to everything from brain fog and headaches to anxiety, depression, and even Alzheimer’s.
We’ve included easy tips and substitutes to help you minimize your exposure.
Neurotoxin #1: Aspartame
Aspartame is a popular artificial sweetener found in diet sodas, processed foods labeled “sugar-free,” and those little blue packages that go by the brand names Equal or NutraSweet.
But aspartame is bad news for your brain, no matter what you call it.
There are over 90 reported side effects of aspartame including migraines, dizziness, anxiety, memory loss, and the worsening of many disorders ranging from fibromyalgia to Alzheimer’s disease. (2)
Over 7,000 aspartame side effects were reported to the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) between 1982 and 1995. (3)
One major study that followed over 250,000 soda drinkers found that drinking artificially-sweetened soft drinks significantly increased the likelihood of depression. (4)
Aspartame’s long list of adverse effects is not surprising when you realize that it is composed of three brain-damaging chemicals — aspartic acid (40%), phenylalanine (50%), and methanol (10%). (5)
Each of these components is neurotoxic in its own right:
Aspartic acid is the precursor of glutamate, the brain’s main excitatory neurotransmitter.
When present in excess, this brain chemical becomes an “excitotoxin,” meaning it literally can “excite” or stimulate brain cells to death. (6)
Phenylalanine is an amino acid normally found in the brain.
In large amounts, it is considered a neurotoxin. (7)
It reduces serotonin levels by inhibiting the brain’s uptake and conversion of tryptophan. (8)
Methanol is wood alcohol, the kind of alcohol that is extremely poisonous.
In your body, it can turn into formaldehyde, another known neurotoxin. (9)
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Discover the most common neurotoxins in your environment, how to minimize your exposure to them, and supplements that can protect your brain from their effects in How to Protect Your Brain From Neurotoxicity.
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A Safe Alternative to Artificial Sweeteners
There are many good reasons to avoid sugar-laden drinks, but artificial sweeteners are not a healthy alternative.
Ironically, artificial sweeteners don’t make you thinner.
In fact, they confuse your brain into increasing appetite and hunger. (10)
My favorite healthy sweetener is stevia.
This naturally sweet herb (Stevia rebaudiana) can be used to sweeten foods and drinks with zero calories, naturally.
It’s 200 times sweeter than sugar and doesn’t increase blood sugar or promote tooth decay.
Read labels carefully when buying stevia since, disappointingly, some stevia products also contain sugar.
Two healthy all-stevia brands are SweetLeaf Stevia and Pure Via.
Neurotoxin #2: Diacetyl
Americans love popcorn, munching 17.3 billion quarts of popped corn each year! (11)
But home-popped microwave popcorn often contains butter flavoring with the additive diacetyl.
It’s already established that this chemical causes a serious condition called “microwave popcorn lung.”
Diacetyl is able to cross the blood-brain barrier, a protective filter which prevents harmful substances from entering the brain.
It causes beta-amyloid clumping which is a significant indicator of Alzheimer’s. (12)
You won’t see the word diacetyl on the label, but if you see “artificial butter flavor” or “natural flavors,” assume that the product contains this neurotoxin.
Healthy Popcorn Alternatives
I love popcorn and am as bummed about this as anyone.
But you can eat popcorn safely.
The best way to have healthy popcorn is to pop your own.
It’s fast, fun, and highly economical.
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Kids of all ages will get a kick of out making popcorn the old-fashioned way.
If you like the taste of butter, use the real thing.
Butter is a particularly good source of vitamin A and the fatty acid butyrate.
Butyrate reduces chronic inflammation and may protect the brain against dementia. (13)
Neurotoxin #3: Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
Glutamate naturally occurs in some foods and it’s also one of your brain’s most important neurotransmitters. (14)
Glutamate is essential for a healthy brain, but “the dose makes the poison.” (15)
In excess, glutamate becomes a potent excitotoxin that overstimulates brain cells, sometimes to death. (16)
There are two ways glutamate naturally occurs in foods.
Glutamate can either be bound to other amino acids (bound glutamate) or not (free glutamate). (17)
Bound glutamate is absorbed slowly, whereas free glutamate is rapidly digested, leading to spikes in the bloodstream.
Since monosodium glutamate is pure, free glutamate, eating it acts like a glutamate bomb.
Reported side effects of MSG include asthma, headache, flushing, sweating, psychiatric disorders, convulsions, migraines, nausea, fuzzy thinking, diarrhea, heart palpitations, mood swings, burning or tingling, muscle weakness, numbness, chest pain, and back pain. (18, 19)
The US National Library of Medicine lists symptoms of Chinese restaurant syndrome ranging from mild to life-threatening. (24)
Avoiding MSG: List of Top MSG Sources
If you want to avoid MSG, you need to be aware of common MSG sources.
Generally the saltier the food, the more MSG it contains.
The worst offenders include foods like canned soups, salty snacks, ramen noodles, and refined soy products.
Here are some label-listed ingredients that always contain MSG: (25)
- hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- hydrolyzed plant protein
- hydrolyzed protein
- plant protein extract
- calcium caseinate
- sodium caseinate
- yeast extract
- textured protein
- autolyzed yeast
These ingredients may contain MSG:
- malt extract
- malt flavoring
- natural flavoring
- beef flavoring
- chicken flavoring
If You Accidentally Ingest MSG
If you accidentally ingest MSG, you don’t have to wait out the symptoms.
Neurotoxin #4: Mercury
Ironically, we’re often told to eat fish because it’s good for your brain due to its omega-3 essential fatty acid content.
But fish is a top source of the neurotoxin mercury.
Unlike the first three neurotoxins we’ve discussed, mercury is not intentionally added to our food supply, but gets into our waterways where it accumulates in fish and seafood.
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Some mercury naturally occurs (volcanic eruptions being the top source), but much of it is a side effect of modern-day pollution.
The neurotoxic effects of mercury are well-documented.
Mercury has the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in the brain.
Chronic mercury poisoning happens slowly over time.
The first signs of mercury toxicity include memory loss, depression, anxiety, mood swings, numbness, and tremors. (32)
Fish That Are Low in Mercury
While there are legitimate concerns about mercury, it’s widely agreed that the benefits of moderate fish consumption still outweigh the risks. (33)
Harvard Medical School recommends eating 12 ounces of fish per week but sticking to those low in mercury. (34)
We recommend eating fish that is both high in brain-healthy omega-3s and low in mercury.
Fortunately, there are a handful of fish that meet both these criteria — wild-caught Alaskan salmon, herring, mackerel, and sardines. (35)
Fish to Avoid
The Environmental Defense Fund recommends avoiding predatory or long-lived fish, which generally accumulate the most mercury.
These include swordfish, shark, orange roughy, and tuna. (36)
If you eat canned tuna, the most widely-consumed fish of all, it’s recommended that you eat no more than 4 servings per month. (37)
Neurotoxin #5: Aluminum
Aluminum is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust, so it’s hard to avoid.
It’s used as an additive in baking powder and anti-caking agents, but you may also be exposed to it from your drinking water, antacids, or deodorant, and from aluminum cans, foil, and cookware.
Aluminum has long been suspected of causing Alzheimer’s since the time that autopsies first revealed that people who had Alzheimer’s had a larger than normal concentration of aluminum in the brain.
It’s been over 50 years since the aluminum-Alzheimer’s correlation was first made, and there is still doubt as to whether aluminum contributes to this disease, in spite of mounting evidence. (38)
Using mass spectrometry, researchers have seen that considerable amounts of aluminum accumulate in the brain. (39)
A review of studies that covered over 10,000 participants found that regular exposure to aluminum increased the risk of Alzheimer’s by 71%. (40)
How to Minimize Aluminum Exposure
You can wait another 50 years for the scientific community to reach a consensus, or you can take measures to minimize aluminum exposure now.
Start by using only aluminum-free versions of baking powder, deodorant, and antacids.
You may want to minimize your use of aluminum cookware.
This soft metal leaches into food especially when you cook acidic foods like tomato, lemon, or vinegar.
Stainless steel cookware is a better choice.
It is more durable, scratch-resistant, and less reactive than aluminum.
You can cook on parchment paper instead of aluminum foil too.
Other Neurotoxins You’re Likely to Encounter
There are hundreds of other neurotoxins, both synthetic and naturally occurring, that you’re likely to encounter in your daily life.
Of the 80,000 man-made chemicals that have been introduced into the environment, over 1,000 are known to be neurotoxins. (43)
Neurotoxins can be found in the water you drink and the air you breathe.
They can be found in toiletries, cosmetics, and household products you use every day.
They can even be found in drugs you take, both prescription and recreational.
Some experts believe we are facing a “silent pandemic” of developmental brain damage caused by neurotoxins.
The image below shows the “dirty dozen” neurotoxins suspected of contributing to attention disorders, autism, and a significant drop in IQ.
Neurotoxins in Food: Take the Next Step
Neurotoxins are chemicals known to be harmful to the brain.
Unfortunately, some lurk in our favorite foods such as soda, microwave popcorn, canned tuna, and salty snacks of all kinds.
There are healthy alternatives, so you can reduce your intake of these ubiquitous neurotoxins with some simple adjustments to the way you eat and cook.
Reducing your exposure to all neurotoxins in your environment is a common-sense way to help avoid mental health problems.
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