Mercy Cherono suffers from fibromyalgia, a condition characterised by widespread joint and muscle pain.
Before her diagnosis, she was an avid consumer of common artificial food spices in the market.
“But the doctor asked me to stop taking them immediately as they seemed to be making my condition worse. The pain was unbearable and I had to rely on a cocktail of drugs to manage it.”
She is among the many Kenyans who could be suffering from unusually high levels of pain arising from various conditions that ail them as a result of a chemical known as glutamate that is added to processed food and artificial spices (such as beef or chicken cubes, sauces, soup mixtures and seasoning powders) to enhance food flavour.
The chemical, which goes by various names in food product labels - including ajinamoto, monosodium glutamate (MSG), hydrolysed protein, protein isolate, protein extract and autolysed yeast extract – has been linked to chronic pain, which makes the body hurt for longer periods than necessary.
This makes the management of conditions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis and other painful muscle, joint or nerve disorders difficult.
There is growing evidence that glutamate plays a key role in how the brain processes pain.
High levels of the chemical are believed to excite neurons (nerve cells) that transmit messages from the brain hence leading to increased sensations of pain.
“So you may have two people with injuries in various parts of their body. The one consuming food with high glutamate levels will be dying of pain as was my case while the other will probably find it manageable and suffer for a short period,” said Ms Cherono.
It is for this reason that health experts have been advocating for reduced intake of food products flavoured with the chemical so as to cushion people from its adverse effects.
In addition, emerging evidence shows that eliminating glutamate in diets altogether can offer an effective low-cost treatment for chronic pain sufferers in low income countries like Kenya where commonly used pain killers remain out of reach for most people.
A recent pilot study conducted in Meru County demonstrated that when participants with chronic pain cut glutamate (MSG) from their diets, their symptoms improved.
The research, published in the Nutrition journal aimed at testing whether a dietary intervention could perform as well as, or better than over-the-counter medication (acetaminophen) in relieving pain among Meru residents.
With a sample size of 30 participants, the researchers tested the effects of removing MSG, increasing water intake, or a combination of both in comparison to giving drugs to patients who had experienced chronic pain for more than three months in at least three quadrants of the body.
Aside from general body pain, these patients also suffered from headaches or migraines, prolonged fatigue, sleep difficulties and brain disorders.
Results showed that the group that removed MSG from its diet and consumed more water reported less significants symptoms, as did the group receiving drugs.
This suggested that dietary interventions that abolish MSG intake can work just as well as medications. However, the researchers noted that more research is still required before a definite conclusion can be made.
“This pilot study suggests the need for a large-scale clinical trial, since dietary change could be an effective low-cost treatment option for developing countries,” said Kathleen Holton, lead author of the study and assistant professor of health studies at American University.
“This would be incredible if we could impact chronic pain simply by making slight modifications to diet,” said Dr Daniel Clauw, a leading expert on chronic pain from the University of Michigan who also participated in the study.
Susan Musilu, nutritionist at Bonsana Nutrition and Wellness Centre states that in spite of the growing evidence against them, awareness on the effects of food additives like MSG is still low among Kenyans.
Consequently, she notes that some people may be going through needless suffering and pain that is largely preventable.
“Many people are sensitive to MSG but they may never know until it’s too late since chronic pain has many causes. And children are especially vulnerable to the chemical.”
She adds: “I tell people that if they can, they should just eliminate these artificial food flavours from their diets and instead opt for natural food spices like tomatoes, dania (coriander) and hoho (green pepper) to flavour their food. With these ones, you can eat as much as you want and you will still be healthy.”
For those accustomed to the taste of artificially flavoured foods, she notes that the ‘addiction’ is beatable.
“That’s an acquired taste so once you stop using the artificial flavours, you will start enjoying the real rich taste of food and will not feel like something is lacking.”
Aside from the chronic pain, MSG undermines the brain’s ability to send the “I am full” signal which normally prompts people to stop eating.
Ultimately this leads to weight gain and obesity cases that are a leading cause of non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, cancer and heart disease in Kenya. It also causes chest pains and burning sensations in the body.