Many different types of stimulants can be found in the foods and drinks we consume. Some are natural ingredients that we’ve been consuming for millennia, such as caffeine. Others are synthetic (manufactured under controlled conditions in laboratories/factories) and a relatively recent addition to our diets.
The problem we are now faced with is the extent to which these food stimulants are being utilised by food and drink manufacturers, with the aim of getting consumers addicted to their products to increase sales and keep customers coming back for more...and more...
These food stimulants are being added in high quantities under various descriptions often falling under the umbrella of flavour enhancement.
The addition of flavour enhancers is so common we face daily exposure to these addictive stimulants through the consumption of a variety of processed foods and drinks. The manufacturers and brands including these artificial additives are having a field day – their sales revenues and profits must be soaring. Whilst they reap the benefits, what are these flavour enhancers doing to our health and the health of our children?
What Are Food Stimulants & How Do We Become Addicted to Them?
Food stimulants are substances contained in the food and drinks we consume that boost mental alertness, heighten or prolong physical activity, or even promote aggression. These effects result from stimulants disrupting or modifying the communication that occurs among our neurons by specifically interfering with the dopamine neurotransmitter system. Dopamine is a very important neurochemical, and is believed to have many roles in the nervous system including the control of movement, cognition, motivation, pleasure, mood, and the sense of reward following certain activities.
When we consume a stimulant, we feel aroused. By hijacking our dopamine system, the stimulant provides us with pleasure and euphoria – which motivates us to consume the same stimulant again in order to experience a repeated feeling of reward.
When the brain's reward system is repeatedly overstimulated, it responds by reducing its number of receptors. This leads to tolerance, one of the hallmarks of addiction. The abrupt discontinuation of addictive stimulants can result in cravings, which is essentially the feeling of wanting to avoid the discomfort that develops once the artificial high of the stimulant has gone.
Cravings are a common symptom when it comes to both junk foods and addictive drugs, and have very little to do with actual hunger.
Excitotoxins: Flavour Enhancers and Artificial Sweeteners
There are numerous excitotoxins used in foods and drinks, one of the most well-known including monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Excitotoxins are an important group of addictive stimulants that not only lead to cravings, but also potentially result in damage of our brain cells through over-stimulation. They are frequently added to processed and refined foods as flavour enhancers and artificial sweeteners, however their presence is often masked on food labels.
To date, only studies on animals have conclusively linked excitotoxin exposure to permanent neurological damage; however, a reasonable amount of scientific literature has voiced concern that excessive consumption of excitotoxins could potentially cause serious long-term health consequences. Studies have also suggested that children are particularly more sensitive to excitotoxin exposure than adults, and excessive consumption during early childhood could potentially result in mild dyslexia, schizophrenia and cerebral palsy.
Background on MSG
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) was first added to foods in 1908, when a Japanese scientist, Ikeda Kikunae, managed to isolate an ingredient in sea kelp that could make bland, nutritious foods taste good. Since WWII, the amount of MSG that has been added to foods has doubled every decade.
Research in 1957 was the first to link MSG with health issues when two eye doctors noticed that it had destroyed all of the nerve cells in the retinas of their laboratory mice. Ten years later, a neuroscientist by the name of Dr John Olney discovered that a single dose of MSG killed the majority of cells in the hypothalamus (a specialised region of the brain) of mice.
Today, there is ongoing debate about how much MSG you need to consume in order for it to be considered harmful. Evidence suggests that MSG is likely to be safe when consumed in moderate amounts; however, large doses (over 6 times the average daily intake) may cause short and long-term harm. A condition exists called MSG symptom complex (Chinese restaurant syndrome), which causes people to experience symptoms such as headache, muscle tightness, numbness, tingling, weakness and flushing after consuming large quantities of MSG.
This highly addictive toxin is so abundantly found in processed foods, under many different guises.
Everyone knows that junk food is unhealthy. But even if people are armed with this knowledge, they still eat junk food, in excessive quantities, despite knowing better.
This is common with drugs of abuse. Addicts know that the drugs are causing them physical harm, but they take them anyway.
Bottom Line – make healthier choices when it comes to what you eat. Research what you’re eating, get familiar with ingredients labels and don’t just buy convenient processed foods. Understand that particular ingredients over stimulate regions of your brain and are added to products so you come back for more. To make you addicted. Don’t expose your children to these foods on a regular basis. Home cook using fresh ingredients. Love your body and be conscious of what you fill it with.