There are many neurotoxins in food in the form of food additives that impair brain function and health. Get our tips on easy, healthy alternatives.
You’d like to think that our food supply is protected from neurotoxins — substances known to harm the brain.
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.
But there are a handful of food additives that are well-documented neurotoxins.
Unfortunately, some are in popular foods found in even relatively healthy diets.
And some of the worst health offenders are not required to be listed on food labels!
Here is my “Top 5 Hit List” of neurotoxic food additives that have been linked to brain fog, headaches, anxiety, depression, and even Alzheimer’s.
I’ve also included some easy tips to minimize your exposure.
Aspartame — A Popular Artificial Sweetener
Aspartame is one of the most popular artificial sweeteners.
It’s found in diet sodas, processed foods labeled “sugar-free,” and those little blue packages that go by the brand names Equal or NutraSweet.
Aspartame is bad news for your brain no matter what you call it.
Currently, there are 92 categories of complaints filed against aspartame with the FDA. (2)
Reported side effects include brain fog, migraines, dizziness, anxiety, depression, and increasing symptoms of ADHD. (3)
Ironically, aspartame and other artificial sweeteners don’t make you thinner.
They confuse your brain into craving more sweet foods and drinks. (4)
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Original studies were falsified to hide the fact that animals fed aspartame developed seizures and brain tumors, but this sweetener was approved by the FDA anyway. (5)
(The FDA has a history of caring more about big business than your well-being.)
Aspartame is made up of three brain-damaging chemicals — aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol.
- Aspartic acid elevates levels of aspartate and glutamate which are brain neurotransmitters. Aspartate and glutamate are “excitotoxins,” meaning that in high amounts they “excite” or stimulate brain cells to death.
- Phenylalanine is an amino acid normally found in the brain. Ingesting aspartame can lead to excess levels of phenylalanine in the brain which disturbs the normal balance of an important brain chemical, serotonin.
- Methanol is wood alcohol, the kind of alcohol that is extremely poisonous.
The FDA recently approved a new high-intensity sweetener, Advantame, which is made from combining aspartame with the artificial flavor vanillin.
“High-intensity” (not “artificial” sweetener) is now the preferred industry term.
The purported benefit to consumers is that it’s 20,000 times sweeter than sugar.
By comparison, aspartame, sucralose and saccharin range from 200 to 700 times sweeter than table sugar.
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Sucralose — Another Artificial Sweetener
While the effects of aspartame are well-publicized, those of the artificial sweetener sucralose are not as well known.
Sucralose is marketed as Splenda whose ads say “made from sugar so it tastes like sugar.”
What the ads don’t tell you is that sucralose is sugar bonded to chlorine, making it a toxic chlorocarbon.
And there’s a long list of common neurological side effects including headaches, migraines, dizziness, brain fog, anxiety, depression, and tinnitus. (6)
Another side effect is weight gain which rather defeats the purpose of this additive.
A surprising side effect of sucralose is that it prevents nutrient absorption and reduces the amount of good bacteria in your intestines by 50%. (7)
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This leads to an overabundance of bad bacteria which has numerous negative effects on your brain including damage to the hippocampus, the part of the brain where memories are stored.
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What Sweeteners to Use Instead
Stop drinking diet soda or eating foods with this or any other artificial sweetener.
You’d almost certainly be better off going back to sugar.
However, my favorite healthy sweetener is stevia.
This naturally sweet herb can be used to sweeten foods and drinks with zero calories, naturally.
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Look for a brand that contains only stevia — SweetLeaf, Pure Via, or Stevia in the Raw.
Many brands of stevia contain other sweeteners.
A major study on 250,000 soda drinkers found that drinking soda sweetened with aspartame, saccharin, and Splenda increases the likelihood of depression by 31%. (8)
Diacetyl — In Microwave Popcorn
Americans love popcorn, munching down 17.3 billion quarts of popped corn each year! (9)
But home-popped microwave popcorn usually 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 defense which prevents harmful substances from entering the brain.
It causes beta-amyloid clumping which is a significant indicator of Alzheimer’s. (10)
You won’t see the word diacetyl on the label, but if you see “artificial butter flavor” or “natural flavors” on the label, assume the product contains this neurotoxin.
Healthy Popcorn Alternatives
I love popcorn and am as bummed about this as you are.
But you can eat popcorn safely.
The best way to get healthy popcorn is to pop your own.
It’s fast, fun, and highly economical. Kids of all ages will get a kick of out making popcorn the old-fashioned way.
If you like butter flavor, just use the real thing.
Butter is a particularly good source of vitamin A and the fatty acid butyrate.
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Monosodium Glutamate — In Most Processed Foods
Monosodium glutamate, usually referred to simply as MSG, is ubiquitous in processed foods.
It breaks down in the body into glutamate, a known excitotoxin — a substance that literally stimulates brain cells to death!
A truly alarming thing about MSG is that it is in just about everything, yet it is not required to be on labels. (13)
This makes it very difficult to avoid.
It is required to be listed on a label only if it’s 100% pure MSG.
Spices, flavorings, and natural flavorings can all contain up to 99% MSG with no mention on the label.
Generally the saltier the food, the more MSG it will contain.
The worst offenders include foods like canned soups, snacks, and ramen noodles.
And don’t think that shopping at a health food store will protect you.
Health food items are not exempt to containing MSG, especially refined soy products like veggie burgers.
If you’ve ever felt weird after a Chinese restaurant meal, you probably experienced MSG-induced “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”
Many people get headaches, feel dizzy, or get flushed after eating just one meal containing MSG.
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Avoiding MSG: List of Top MSG Sources
If you want to avoid MSG you need to be aware of common MSG sources.
Here are some ingredients that always contain MSG: (15)
• 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
Another major source of MSG is the food at fast food restaurants.
MSGTruth.org has a list of the worst fast food restaurants in its article ironically titled American Restaurant Syndrome?.
They believe Chinese restaurants get a bad rap considering how MSG-laden American restaurants are.
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Aluminum — In Your Pots & Pans
Aluminum is an additive in baking powder and anti-caking agents, but it is used as much more than just a food ingredient.
It is the most abundant metal in the the earth’s crust so is hard to avoid.
It’s in drinking water, antacids, deodorant, cans, foil, and is commonly used in cookware.
Aluminum is suspected of causing Alzheimer’s.
In the 1970s, autopsies revealed that people who had Alzheimer’s had a larger than normal concentration of aluminum in the brain.
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This understandably began a scare that aluminum was the cause of Alzheimer’s.
It’s now believed that aluminum enters the brain when it comes in contact with fluoride, a neurotoxin commonly found in drinking water.
Together they form aluminum fluoride which can bypass the blood-brain barrier to enter the brain.
Aluminum fluoride is the compound in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. (16)
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Start by only using aluminum-free versions of baking powder, deodorant, and antacids.
You may want to avoid aluminum cookware.
This soft metal leeches into food especially when cooking acidic foods like tomato, lemon, or vinegar.
Stainless steel is the better cookware choice.
It is more durable, scratch-resistant, and less reactive than aluminum.
It’s easier to keep looking good for the long haul too.
You can cook on parchment paper instead of foil.
But is all this necessary?
Scientific proof can come slowly.
It’s been 40 years since the aluminum-Alzheimer’s correlation was made, but science has still not determined whether ingesting aluminum contributes to this disease. (17)
But since it is a known neurotoxin, it only makes sense to minimize your exposure.
Neurotoxins in Food: The Bottom Line
Avoiding these five neurotoxins commonly found in food is not that difficult.
There are healthy alternatives, so you can reduce your exposure with little effort.
Taking action will help you reduce exposure to brain toxins, a key factor in keeping your brain sharp for a lifetime.