Reading Labels/Recognizing Hidden Triggers
Food labels carry important information for migraineurs and nonmigraineurs alike and allow you to identify potential dietary concerns such as trans fats, genetically engineered corn, and stealth calories.
For someone suffering from migraine, not reading labels carefully can be the difference between a pain-free day and one spent in misery. Unfortunately, even a conscientious label reader can mistakenly ingest foods laced with migraine triggers. Some ingredients are labeled with scientific names, ones that might not be easily recognized as triggers. Other labels might omit trigger ingredients, or hide them under the guise of “added flavorings and seasonings.”
When in doubt, contact the manufacturer. They should be able to detail exactly which flavorings, seasonings, and food colorings are used in their products. If for some reason they cannot share that information, it might be wise to avoid the items in question if you suspect them of triggering migraine attacks.
Glutamate, an amino acid, is actually found naturally in several foods including grapes, spinach, some aged cheeses, mushrooms, and tomatoes. Monosodium glutamate is the chemically manufactured version of glutamate.
MSG (monosodium glutamate)
MSG is a food additive that is commonly used to enhance flavor. It is found in many different processed foods, including flavored potato chips and other snacks, sauces, soups, and prepared meals. It is also present in many different types of restaurant food, the most notable being fast food and Asian cuisine.
Any time a food is considered “seasoned” or “flavored,” read the ingredients carefully to check for MSG. For example, most plain potato chips, corn chips, and pretzels do not contain MSG. However, most flavored versions (barbeque, sour cream and onion, ranch, etc.) do contain MSG, unless the brand is “all natural” or explicitly says it does not use MSG.
MSG is created when protein is broken down and fermented; particular bacteria excrete glutamic acid that is then filtered and added to salt to create the substance known as MSG. MSG works by stimulating the taste buds into making food seem more appealing. Some studies have suggested that MSG might even appeal to an extra fifth fundamental taste, in addition to the typical ones of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Animal studies have also suggested that ingesting large amounts of food with MSG can lead to high blood sugar and obesity.
Anyone familiar with migraine triggers should have picked up on two major red flags with the description of how MSG works. Fermented products, or ones based on the process of sugar being converted to alcohol by way of yeast, are well-known migraine triggers. Blood sugar changes can also trigger headaches and migraine attacks in many individuals.
Among the foods and dietary substances known by researchers to potentially trigger migraines, MSG holds a prominent place on the list. Potential reasons for its triggering power include the fermentation inherent to the MSG-making process, and the possibility that MSG actually alters brain function by affecting the behavior of serotonin.
Be aware that there are several different “flavor enhancers” that have similar properties to MSG and may act as triggers in much the same way. Some of the similar enhancers include:
BHA or BHT
Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) or hydrolyzed plant protein (HPT)
Modified food starch
A trial exclusion of these flavor enhancers from your diet can help you to determine if they are a trigger for you.
Are FD&C color additives only found in food?
FD&C stands for food, drug, and cosmetics, and these additives can be found in all three types of products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the use of these color additives to ensure their overall safety for consumers.
Sometimes the triggering agent can be in the coloring rather than the flavoring. FD&C yellow #5 (also called tartrazine dye) is a color additive that is found in soft drinks and candy. It can also be found in medications, so read all prescription and over-the-counter bottles carefully to be sure vitamins and other drugs do not contain it.
Be aware that yellow dye is used in more than just yellow foods! Yellow is used to create other colors, including orange, green, blue, and maroon, so read food labels and ask the pharmacist about color additives before picking up any new medication.