Excitotoxins: Tasty but Deadly

Everyone wants their food to taste good, but many times the chemicals introduced to improve taste have other harmful effects as well. Many of these chemicals are excitotoxins, which means they not only excite our taste buds, but they change the way our brain reacts to food, often creating harmful addictions.

Despite the negative publicity they have gotten, many excitotoxins remain in processed foods. Many of these chemicals are not only addictive, but they have been proven to cause brain cell death, infertility, inhibit sexual development, cause violent behaviors, and even hormonal disorders. 

What are Excitotoxins?

Excitotoxins are chemicals that excite neuron receptors, which act as a communication highway in our brains. These chemicals cause our neuro receptors to fire at an accelerated rate until they wear themselves out and eventually die off. They are usually recognized as amino acids, and are in so many processed foods in the American diet they may seem impossible to avoid.

While amino acids, and even one of the more common excitotoxins MSG occur naturally in small amounts in some foods, scientists take these compounds and make them cleaner and more powerful and saturate processed foods with them to make them more appealing.

Common Excitotoxins

Unfortunately, excitotoxins can be found everywhere, and you may not even recognize them unless you pay careful attention to the ingredients in your food. Here are some of the most common types and names for excitotoxins:

MSG (Monosodium Glutamate)

MSG is a salt form of glutamate or glutamic acid. Your body naturally produces glutamate when it needs to trigger cell death, but too much dietary glutamate disrupts normal cellular function because it crosses the blood-brain barrier easily and can trigger cell death when it is not necessary.

Finding MSG on an ingredient list can be tough: it is not always listed by name. Instead, look for foods that contain any of the following:

  • Natural flavor(s)
  • Flavoring
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
  • Autolyzed protein
  • Plant Protein
  • Textured Protein
  • Yeast extract
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Carrageenan
  • Anything with glutamate

All of these “ingredients” should be avoided if you are going to keep MSG out of your diet.


Aspartate is very similar chemically to glutamate and is most commonly ingested in the form of aspartame, an artificial sweetener. Diabetics and others who consume low-calorie or diet sodas and sugar-free foods consume large amounts of this toxin.

When we ingest aspartame our bodies convert it to formaldehyde, a lethal chemical when taken in large doses. There have been numerous documented cases of aspartame toxicity which manifests with over 90 symptoms. Worse, when heated above 86 degrees aspartame turns into a carcinogen called diketopiperazine, so hot drinks like apple cider or hot chocolate that contain artificial sweeteners are even worse for you, and using any aspartame-based sweetener for your coffee can be deadly, not to mention your body temperature is 98.6 degrees.

Prolonged exposure and consumption of aspartame can lead to damage to your central nervous system and to your brain. This toxin should be avoided at all costs.

 Domoic Acid

This is another naturally occurring excitotoxin. This amino acid is often found in shellfish. However, over consumption has led to epilepsy, especially in the elderly. Avoiding too much shellfish is not entirely the answer though, as this toxin is often found in farm-raised seafood as well.

Wild-caught salmon, trout, and tuna are much better seafood options that will give you nutrition like Omega-3 fatty acids without the consumption of this excitotoxin.


Cysteine is another common excitotoxin that is used in the creation of artificial flavors. It reacts with sugars in a process called the Maillard reaction and creates a meaty and savory flavor.

This excitotoxin should not be confused with L-Cysteine, a semi-essential amino acid crucial to your body's ability to make glutathione, an essential antioxidant. It is called semi-essential because your body can produce some of the Cysteine itself, but usually not enough.

The issue is, that only certain forms of cysteine can be consumed and remain useful to your body. The kind commonly bonded with sugar cannot-it gets broken down in the digestive process.

So while you can find L-Cysteine in some supplements, avoid artificial flavors or cysteine in a list of ingredients in processed foods.

Symptoms Caused by Excitotoxins

Excitotoxins can cause harmful symptoms, and you should know what to watch out for.

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Skin irritation (rash, hives, discoloration)
  • Asthma
  • Chest tightening
  • Arthritis
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Stomach complications (diarrhea, cramping, constipation)

An occasional snack will not typically cause these symptoms, but a steady diet containing excitotoxins can.

Avoiding Excitotoxins

Excitotoxins can be found in many foods you will find on supermarket shelves. Here are some ways to avoid them.

  • Avoid processed foods as much as possible.
  • Read labels. Know what you are putting in your body. 
  • Avoid diet soda and sugar-free foods.
  • Avoid excessive consumption of shellfish and farm-raised seafood
  • Avoid artificial sweeteners, especially in foods or beverages that are heated up. 

Eating whole and unprocessed foods is the best way to avoid these common and extremely harmful toxins. Excitotoxins may make your food taste good, but they are addictive and can have serious long-term side effects, some of which are nearly irreversible.

To undo the harm done by excitotoxins, increase the number of antioxidant foods in your life and consider participating in Dr. Nuzum’s 2-Week Detox.