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What's eating kids? Maybe it's their diet


The Orlando Sentinel
By Linda Bonvie and Bill Bonvie

Social critics of crime-driven, gun crazy television shows complain that some teen-agers are incited to real-life rage by the daily diet of TV violence.

But maybe it's just their daily diets - as in breakfast, lunch and dinner.

That's a factor of increasing concern to some scientists and activists who see a link between. the growing epidemic of senseless violence among adolescents and the mushrooming use of certain food additives - additives they claim are actually harmful drugs in disguise.

When people ask what's eating kids, these experts say, maybe they should look at what kids are eating.

The two main ingredients at issue are the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate, or MSG, and the artificial sweetener aspartame, more commonly known by the trade name NutraSweet. Both contain amino acids - glutamate and aspartate - which occur naturally in the brain as neurotransmitters - the chemicals that carry messages between nerve cells.

But the unrestricted ingestion of these substances, in the view of some authorities, can cause brain cells to become overcharged and consequently, to shut down.

"The poisoning of young minds," in their view, is all too real when you consider the amount of these additives consumed by children.

That's not to mention a variety of other adverse reactions reportedly experienced by children and adults alike, as reflected in thousands of health complaints taken by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Dallas-based Aspartame Consumer Safety Network, and an organization called No MSG, based in Santa Fe, N.M.

From an industry perspective, all of this is utter nonsense, In a series of pamphlets, the NutraSweet Co. reassures consumers that study after study has found no ill effects resulting from the use of aspartame, other than in a tiny percentage of people who suffer from a condition known as PKU.

The sweetener is perfectly safe, manufacturers say, and has the backing of major health organizations. Similar claims are made by the Glutamate Association, representing MSG producers and companies that use the product.

They take issue even with the term critics use to describe the additives, saying "excitotoxins" is an artificial coinage and loaded word. The critics, however, charge that the research cited is flawed and industry generated and that the FDA has been too permissive in its acceptance of these additives. Meanwhile, the pervasiveness of processed food containing either MSG or aspartame - now numbering thousands of products - can result in considerable intake, especially among kids, who consume a lot of snack foods and diet soda.

"Hundreds of millions of infants and young children are at great risk and their parents are not even aware of it," warns Dr. Russell Blaylock, author of a recent book Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills. Blaylock is a neurosurgeon and associate professor of neurosurgery at the Medical University of Mississippi.

According to Blaylock, a single meal may contain several sources of these additives, compounding their toxic effects - effects that, given a high enough dose, can include brain lesions. Resulting symptoms, he contends, may take the form of emotional control disorders and displays of episodic anger, which can show up in young children or emerge later.

The hypothalamus, which affects mood and emotion, is an area of the brain that's particularly sensitive to excitotoxins, he said in a recent interview, because it contains "a very high concentration of excitatory receptors."

Sudden rage has been produced in animals, he claims in his book, by injecting tiny amounts of glutamate into the hypothalamus. Giving a child enough exposure to the substance, he said, might precipitate a similar outburst, precipitating an explosion of violent rage "over something that normally wouldn't result in any more than a shoving incident or name calling."

Blaylock is by no means the only one to raise such a red flag. For years, maverick members of the medical, scientific and legal communities have been casting serious doubts on the FDA's allowing of ever greater quantities of excitotoxins to be introduced into the typical American family diet.

Particularly galling to critics was the FDA's approval of aspartame in 1981 - despite the alleged unreliability of test results submitted by G.D. Searle, NutraSweet's parent company, and despite the opinion of a panel of consulting scientists that uncertainties existed about the sweetener's role in brain-tumor development.

"It was approved in a completely nefarious, completely unacceptable manner," maintains James Turner, a Washington, D.C-based attorney, food-safety crusader and author of the 1970 landmark book, "The Chemical Feast", who led the original campaign against the sanctioning of aspartame.

Turner's efforts have included a legal challenge to the FDA's NutraSweet approval process in which potential harm to children was one of the issues raised. His action, however, was defeated in federal court.

FDA spokesman Thomas Wilcox doesn't deny that there have been claims of adverse reactions and that he wishes there were none. He is chief of the epidemiology branch of the FDA's Office of Scientific Analysis and Support - the office to which the Nutrasweet Co. refers all complaints.

"There are some people who don't tolerate aspartame," he said, but the reports to the FDA aren't sufficient to warrant a change in the product's classification. FDA policy, he added, is that "unless there is shown to be some very common serious effect ... you don't want to deprive the entire population of the product" simply because a "smaller group" reacts badly.

That, in fact, is precisely the kind of thinking that Turner thinks keeps the FDA from doing an adequate job of protecting the public.

"The way they see it is every time they take an action, the take something away from consumers," he said.

Another early aspartame activist, Dr. Woodrow C. Monte, director of Arizona State University' Food Science and Nutrition Laboratory, remains especially concerned about the methyl alcohol it contains.

This particular component, he says, is one that can enter directly into brain cells, where it breaks down into formaldehyde.

"It's a terrible thing to do to kids," said Monte, who a decade ago tried to have NutraSweet taken off the shelf in Arizona by in invoking a state law prohibiting unsafe food ingredients.

"Methyl alcohol poisoning works slow and is sinister," he said. "You can never find it."

MSG is often identified with condition known as "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," first described in a 1968 letter to the New England Journal of Medicine. But authorities such as Dr. George Schwartz, an internationally known physician, toxicologist and author, claim that its effects extend far beyond that syndrome's minor and transitory symptoms, posing a distinct hazard to the physical and mental health of millions of Americans.

Such alleged effects, which range from digestive ailments and migraines to seizures and asthma attacks, can include what Schwartz terms "rage reactions" and "marked personality disturbances with violent behavior" - changes that he claims to have observed in normally placid youngsters within 20 minutes of ingesting MSG.

"It can cause enormous destruction of a childhood," he said. "A person has to eat a tremendous amount of food to get the level of MSG they're suggesting," said Sue Taylor, a dietitian who serves as the Glutamate Association's manager of nutrition communications.

She acknowledged that "a few people" may be MSG-sensitive but only about 2 percent of the population, and they experience only mild reactions. "Nothing," Taylor said, "that would substantiate the claims they're making." In any event, she says, MSG can't get past the barrier that keeps substances in the blood from entering the brain.

But Schwartz and others maintain millions of people suffer adverse reactions to MSG, some to only minuscule amounts that may be hidden in other ingredients.

Further, they say, it becomes toxic to everyone at some point, and the blood-brain barrier doesn't adequately protect the hypothalamus.

According to Blaylock, in fact, "the ' immature brain is four times more sensitive to the damaging effects of excitotoxins as is the adult brain."

There are, he said, many variables that determine sensitivity to excitotoxins including age, heredity, body temperature, total exposure and the frequency and timing of that exposure.

"The problem is," he said, "we have no way of knowing who possesses abundant natural protective mechanisms and who does not."

Government pronouncements about MSG and aspartame have created a "false sense of security," he said.

"Educators around this country are having all sorts of meetings concerning declining test scores and violence in the classroom," Schwartz said. "Yet we are providing drugs for breakfast, lunch and dinner that are known causes of personality alterations, inability to concentrate and violent behavior."

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