All Natural Challenge Week Three: Excitotoxins

 Here we are at week Three of the Six Week All Natural Challenge – big news – you’re halfway there!  In week One we learned all about artificial colors and flavors.  Week Two brought us to the wide world of artificial preservatives.  This week will focus on a group of food additives classified as excitotoxins.  There are two specific ingredients to discuss this week: artificial sweeteners and MSG.  Let me warn you, I went a little heavy on the words this week.  This is by far the longest post of the Challenge, and I apologize for taking up so much of your time.  This week’s challenge is one that’s near and dear to me, and there is quite a bit of information I wanted to share with you about these particular ingredients. 

If you’re new to the Six Week All Natural Challenge, and wondering what this is all about, please read my article on Circle of Moms called How Artificial Ingredients can Lead to Artificial Kids.  You can also click on the “All Natural Challenge” tab at the top of this page to read all the related articles on how eliminating artificial ingredients can dramatically improve your health, and the biggie, your child’s behavior.  My daughter was on the verge of being diagnosed with ADHD until I cut artificial ingredients from our diet.  Within 36 hours her symptoms vanished. You’ll also find lots of tips and tricks there for how to easily make the transition from an artificial to an all natural diet.  I encourage everyone to read the Success Stories at the top of the page as well to hear first hand accounts of how the All Natural Challenge has helped families who thought their only option was medication for ADHD symptoms.  You’ll find a Shopping List tab with some of the items that I use as well as products that have been suggested by readers.  And the reader favorite Grocery Bag Menus – two different weeks worth of easy, all natural, family pleasing meals along with a shopping list to help you save time and effort.  (A third menu to be posted soon.) 

So, let’s dig in to the topic for this week, excitotoxins.  First, what’s with the name?  I always have to fight the urge to add an exclamation point after I write it.  Excitotoxins!  It’s a simple explanation that makes perfect sense when you think about it.  Excitotoxins are chemicals that cause brain cells to become overstimulated, or excited, and fire uncontrollably, leading to cell death.  Yes they kill your brain cells, for real.  Excitotoxins cause permanent damage, once those brain cells are dead they aren’t replaced.  What’s even worse is that they have the ability to affect unborn babies in exactly the same way.  So when people say you should avoid diet sodas when you’re pregnant there’s a good reason, although they probably aren’t aware what the real reason is.  Most people assume it’s the caffeine that causes the problem.  While caffeine is a concern, it’s nothing compared to what excitotoxins can do.  Excitotoxins have also been linked to unexplained heart palpitations,  high blood pressure, epilepsy, seizures, migraines, and ADHD. (By the way, if you suffer from migraines you need to eliminate this group of additives.  My almost daily headaches were completely gone in less than a week after eliminating these things.) 

So the mission this week is to eliminate MSG and artificial sweeteners from your family’s diet.  To be clear, not all artificial sweeteners are technically considered an excitotoxin, but it is extremely important to eliminate all of them from your diet to improve your overall health as well as your child’s well being and behavior.

Artificial sweeteners are usually easy to find.  They have many brand names that we’re all familiar with, which I won’t mention here.  But there are other more generic names as well, such as sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium, saccharin, and aspartame.  Of that list only aspartame is classified as an excitotoxin, but all of them are artificially created, and will cause problems for children who are sensitive.  Some of the other health risks of artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame, include an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, low levels of serotonin in the brain, epilepsy/seizures, mood/emotional disorders, birth defects, and brain cancer.  So now you know why I quit my diet soda habit cold turkey.  And I can tell you that my mood has only improved since doing so.  I also had another unexpected improvement in my health.  I had been seeing a doctor for a long period of time to control heart palpitations and high blood pressure, which had caused an enlarged muscle in my heart.  I was taking two prescription medications every day for those conditions for a year, with exactly zero progress.  Within two weeks of giving up my diet soda, which contained aspartame, everything was back to normal and my doctor was stunned.  No more prescriptions and I feel better than ever.  I’ve read several studies by respected physicians and researchers who go so far as to question the morality of any manufacturer who uses aspartame, saying it’s like putting poison into our food supply.  And that stuff was in the juice I used to buy for my children thinking it was healthier than all that sugar.  You are much better off eating the sugar than eating this stuff. 

The second excitotoxin as I mentioned above is MSG.  This is one tricky little ingredient.  There are over FORTY different names for MSG as an ingredient in food.  FORTY.  I don’t want to overwhelm you with this list, but here are the words you don’t want to see in your list of ingredients:  Glutamic acid, Glutamate, Monosodium glutamate, Anything followed by the word “glutamate”, Yeast extract, Calcium or Sodium casienate, Yeast food or Yeast nutrient, Autolyzed yeast, Anything with the word “protein” associated to it as in “soy protein” or “whey protein”,  gelatin, Ajinomoto, and Vetsin.  That’s a lot of words to avoid.  Stick with me because I’ve got a few more.  These are common food additives that have been proven to contain or create MSG.  They are: Carrageenan, “flavors”, “flavoring”, anything with the word”enzymes”, broth, bouillon, citric acid, and maltodextrin.  I had a question a few weeks ago about “flavoring” asking whether it was considered safe.  When you see “flavoring” you should automatically think “MSG”. 

Also an important thing to note about MSG: it can technically be classified as “naturally occurring” because some ingredients, when combined, can spontaneously create MSG.  But luckily the list of ingredients will still have to list it in one of it’s various names, so read carefully, and beware of processed products with the words “all natural”, or “no added MSG” on the front of the package.  The manufacturer doesn’t have to add MSG it for it to be present. But you will see one or more of those words in the ingredient list, which will be your alert to make a better choice. 

Are you reeling yet?  I know I still have trouble sometimes with this one, even after much experience.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed don’t despair.  You don’t have to get it 100% right the first time you try.  Just aim high and keep refining your choices until you can get to a point where you can be reasonably certain you’re not inadvertently buying and eating MSG. Some of the sneaky places you’re likely to see hidden MSG: milk, yogurt, cheese, meat, ice cream, SOUPS (I’ve yet to find a canned soup without MSG in it), canned tomato products, canned vegetables, canned beans, cereals, baked items, soy sauce, ketchup…almost any processed product you can name can include MSG.  But luckily there are responsible manufacturers out there who steadfastly refuse to include MSG or any of it’s by-products in their products.  Seek them out and support them to every extent possible.  The more market share they gain the more the other manufacturers will take notice.

One last thing to note: despite what you’ve been told, do not be afraid of whole milk.  Low fat milks typically add MSG in the form of carrageenan and other ingredients.  They have to replace the nutrients they remove with artificial ingredients.  The same goes for low fat ice cream, cheeses, and other dairy products.  These are not healthy products.  Last year we switched from low-fat to whole milk, and full fat dairy products across the board.  Since then I’ve lost fifteen pounds and my husband lost twenty-five.  Healthy fats do not make you fat, and they don’t cause terrible health problems.  In fact they support good health.  Your body needs those fats to function and to feed the nervous system.  It’s especially important for growing children.  If you’re eating a healthy diet full of whole foods like we discuss here you have nothing to fear about whole milk.  If you don’t believe me you can read some of the research by the highly respected Weston A Price Foundation, here.  You can also search the web for story after story of real people who improved their health by eating full fat dairy instead of low fat.  So, that’s my soapbox about fats.  They’re not all bad. 

In weeks past I’ve always used my experience with my daughter as an example of how artificial ingredients can affect behavior.  It’s very true in this case as well.  But this week I want to share my Dad’s story, because I truly believe that what happened to him was a result of exposure to excitotoxins.  Four years ago my Dad began experiencing trouble finding the words he wanted to use in conversations.  At first it was nothing to worry about, but it continued to happen more frequently, and with very simple words.  It took him two years and five different specialists before he was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Aphasia.  In simple terms it’s a rare brain disease where the brain cells that control language die.  Within 6 months of diagnosis my vibrant father could no longer speak.  Soon after that he began losing the ability to understand what was being said to him.  Now he can’t read or write.  His brain can no longer process any language at all.  The specialists he sees have no answers at all, and there is nothing they can do to help him.  There is nothing in his history to suggest a cause for this to happen to him.  He told me after he was diagnosed that it felt like he was being buried alive.  Inside his head he still has the same thoughts and feelings he always has, but he has absolutely no way to express them.  I can stand behind him and say his name and he doesn’t recognize that I’ve said anything.  In every other way both physically and mentally he’s still the same, but he can’t speak or understand a word.  I hope you’ll take a minute to read the post I wrote about making Dad’s vegetable soup recipe to learn a little more about him and his disease.  The more I learn about artificial ingredients, especially excitotoxins, the more convinced I am that this was a completely avoidable situation.  It’s now another reason why I’m passionate about helping others understand the dangers of artificial ingredients and what’s being added to our food supply.  I’d love nothing more than for you to share the information you read here with everyone you know so that Primary Progressive Aphasia doesn’t become a more common disease. 

So week three – eliminate those excitotoxins.  No artificial sweeteners and no MSG.  It may seem overwhelming at first, but my guess is that you’ve made some pretty great strides in the past two weeks, so this is just a baby step by now.  As you begin whittling away the artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives you are most likely making a shift towards real food, like fruits, vegetables, and wholesome grains.  That’s an amazing thing.  I want you to know that I’m amazed by how many people are taking this challenge so seriously.  I know that you’ve seen huge improvements over the first two weeks – that’s amazing news.  I hope you’re feeling stronger and more empowered when you enter those grocery stores.  When you see the healthier choices your children are making you should stop for a minute and pat yourself on the back.  You’re doing some amazing things, and the benefits will continue for their entire lives.  Congratulations!  You really deserve it! 

Week three – You’re now halfway to the finish line!  Next week we will shift the focus from food to household chemicals.  You’ll be surprised at how all those products can affect your child’s behavior.  So then you’ll get a break from constantly thinking about food and will start thinking about what’s really in all that stuff in your kitchen cabinets, bathroom, and laundry room.   They really do make a huge difference.

How are you feeling about all this?  I really want to know, because I know how important having a little support can be when you’re making changes like this.  I’m here to answer questions or give you a virtual hug.  Whatever you need to keep on trucking just ask.  You can just comment below, and will probably find a few others who are feeling or felt the same way you do right now who are more than willing to lend a hand.  Or email me any time at contact.ourfamilyeats at gmail dot com.  Don’t forget to check the All Natural Challenge tab at the top, along with the Resources tab for more articles and information to help you along the way.  I frequently add information to both of those pages.  Good luck this week! 

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  1. CC says

    I was finishing my breakfast of plain yogurt, fresh fruit, almonds and honey while reading your most recent post. I went to grab the yogurt container (labeled "Fit&Active Plain Nonfat Yogurt) and almost cried when I saw "whey protein concentrate" and "carrageenan"in the ingredient list! Can you recommend some brands of yogurt you have found without MSG?

    Thanks for your hard work on this series! I've been looking for concise information on this topic for a while now.

  2. Our Family Eats says

    Hi CC, this will likely be a common question. Since it's easy to hide MSG, I will tell you the branded I trust and use, but I can't guarantee 100% that they are totally free of MSG. But I'm reasonably sure of these: Dannon all natural regular yogurt, 365 brand at Whole Foods, Horizon Organic, and Organic Valey. There may be others as well but these are the ones I trust. Hope that helps!

    • Breanna says

      I know the 365 brand has natural flavors in it. Isn’t that also a code mag for MSG?My kids love the Lifeway kefir pro bugs but it also has natural flavors in it. I can’t get thy company to answer my questions on if that is MSG. I would really like to find a yogurt that is MSG free! As a side note, Annie’s actually did answer my question and admitted that there was MSG in their cheddar bunnies but now make them without the natural flavors ingredient.

        • Breanna says

          sorry, guess I should have asked a question. Do you know if natural flavors can be anything else besides MSG? and, do you know of a yogurt that is truly MSG free?
          Thanks for your website. It’s really awesome.

          • says

            Yes, natural flavors can be things other than MSG. Natural flavors is a catch all term that can frequently hide MSG, but not always. Most high quality organic manufacturers do not include it in their products. Most of the time it is in very small amounts if it is present. It can become a problem for people who are sensitive to MSG (which is a high percentage of people), but it can also become a problem if you consume a lot of products that include natural flavors, because the small amounts add up throughout the day. I try to stay away from natural flavors as much as possible, but when we do eat something that contains them I make a mental note so we keep them in moderation. For yogurt I use a plain, full fat yogurt and sweeten it with honey or pure maple syrup, then sometimes I add fruit or a drop of vanilla flavoring. That keeps the ingredients clean.

            I met with the Lifeway people last year at a conference – I have a lot of respect for them as a company.

        • Breanna says

          this just in from Lifeway foods:
          No, we do not have MSG in any of our products. Our natural flavors consist of fruit juice, oil, or essence. While our flavoring company does not give us a full list of ingredients to protect their formulations, we know that there is absolutely no MSG. At Lifeway we strive to keep our products as natural as possible and free from chemicals.

  3. Modern Mia says

    Ok, this week's challenge has already got me tossing out food. My favorite yogurt, I realize after checking the ingredients list, has not 1 but 3 (!) MSG products listed. Oy vey! After a decade of enjoying it specifically because it doesn't have artificial sweeteners, I will have to change. Oh well. Thanks for the response to the first poster about yogurt. Now I know what to look for tomorrow at the store.

    Also, the loaf bread I bought last week on sale is loaded with MSG as well. I never would have expected it. But that does explain the extra bounciness and unruly behaviour in the kids over the past week that has had me pulling my hair out. I had noticed a distinct change in their behaviour since starting the challenge but that all eroded over the weekend. Now I think I have a better clue to that change since nothing else around here has changed.

    Thank you so much for these posts! The MSG list today is exceedingly helpful!

  4. Our Family Eats says

    Mia, you crack me up! You're really paying attention! Isn't it interesting to see a reaction to artificial ingredients in real life? My husband says I should have been a detective with the way I retrace our steps after one happens. But thats how you learn. One more yogurt I should have mentioned is Chobani Greek yogurt. The plain kind is one of my favorites to eat with honey, or to add to recipes. And it makes a super healthy alternative to sour cream. Lots of good stuff for your immune system.

  5. srick says

    All I can say is Wow! I just read your recent post and it's a bit overwhelming; however I am embrassing this new "adventure". With small steps, that is. I'm sure along the way I will have questions. Needless to say, I am more than greatful for all the research & countless hours you've spent.

    One question I'd like to ask is about purchasing certain groceries over the Internet. I personally have never done this. However, I did notice that you referece ordering in bulk through

  6. Our Family Eats says

    I order tons of things through Amazon. Everything you see in my Amazon store are things I have personally used/ordered. Their prices are usually the same if not cheaper than buying the same thing at my local store. Plus it comes directly to my door so I don't have to drive across town just to pick up something I can only find at Whole Foods. Most grocery products on Amazon ship free, and they have several ways to save even more like Amazon Moms or Amazon Prime. I love it and it works great for me. Saves me tons of time and money and I recommend it to all my family and friends.

  7. ashley says

    I had been directed to your blog through a friend after having started my family on this diet about two weeks ago. I am so thankful to have found this! This is such a wonderful resource to someone who is new to this. I LOVE the recipes and grocery list! I began this to help with one of my children that suffers from ADD and has trouble with aggression and anger. We have literally been at our wits end. When my mother told me that she really didn't want to babysit the kids again (due to the behavioral problems with the one child), I knew we were desperate. I have had almost immediate and unbelievable results! I cannot tell you how hopeful we feel -it will be very hard, but so worth it!

  8. Katie says

    Count me in the "OH NO!!" category – the Stonyfield Farm Organic yogurt squeezers has Carrageenan in it. I was doing good until reading that label…phooey!

  9. Mommy Duck says

    Ok the many names of MSG goes on my iphone notes under "do not eat"

    Just wondering, I know you mentioned Dr. Feingold "diet" Is your child allergic to any of those natural salicylates? My elimination process with the natural food which contains salicylates is taking forever and I was wondering what your experience was like…

  10. Kristy says

    I was checking the Annie’s products and they also seem to contain yeast extract, but it looks like you still use them. I am trying to see what you purchase through Amazon to give me some idea of what to buy. I am guessing sometimes you just have to get as close as you can? Thoughts?

    • says

      Hi Kristy, As a rule, I avoid yeast extract, but I do allow a few Annie’s products as a treat from time to time. Definitely not on a daily basis. My philosophy is avoidance is best, but if you have to make an allowance now and then, make it the healthiest choice possible and don’t sweat it. :)

  11. KC says

    I was really blown away with this weeks post. The artificial flavors and colors was relatively easy. But Citric acid and yeast extract is in EVERYTHING. I’m a little overwhelmed. There are so many recipe shortcuts like canned tomatoes or salsa that I use that are now a no-no…. I wanted to check your shopping list and menu along with the Weston Price research but none of the links in the above post work.

    On a good note- Stonyfield farms plain yogurt is ok.

  12. Suzi Thomas says

    Wow! That’s a lot to remember! I have a question, though. I am wondering whether or not I should use yeast in baking bread or pizza crust. I see the different ingredients you list this week, some of them including the word ‘yeast’, and I wonder if my packets of yeast are ok?

    • says

      Yes, yeast that is used for baking is fine to use. The yeast that I refer to in the article is hydrolyze yeast – not a naturally occurring form of yeast.

  13. Mary says

    We’ve started purging our cabinets and the fridge, but we’re having a hard time with milk. Our oldest son has a lactose intolerance; he can eat cheese and some yogurts, but can’t drink whole milk. (Which makes my husband so sad, because he wants so badly to switch to whole milk, lol!) We normally buy organic soy milk. Do you have any recommendations on brands? Everything we have has Carrageenan in it. Also, neither of our sons eat much meat at all, so we work hard to increase their protein in other ways. We had started using protein smoothies to do this; these include protein isolates of the soy and why varieties. Recommendations? Thanks so much for your wonderful site!!!

    • says

      Good for you for making these changes! We try to stay away from soy milk because it presents so many health risks. Here is a quick article that outlines the issues: We use unsweetened organic almond milk instead. (The “original” versions of both almond milk and soy milk are FILLED with sugar.) For the protein powder, Garden of Life makes one called RAW Protein that I’ve heard good things about. We don’t use a protein powder so I can’t speak personally for it. Hope that helps!

      • Mary says

        Hi Susan,

        Just wanted to let you know that we went pretty much cold turkey on most of the weeks, as well as cutting soy out of our children’s diets. We’re still working on some of the fragrances and environmentals. I have to say that the results have been pretty dramatic! My older son’s teacher has reported some drastic changes with his school behavior. In April, the school observations of ADHD behaviors were off the charts; when I met with his teacher on Friday, she said the same behaviors were almost non-existent! So, so glad to have stumbled upon your site when I did. Thank you, so much!

        • says

          That is AMAZING! I couldn’t be any happier to hear this! I’m so glad the program is helping you, but most of the credit goes to you for taking a leap of faith to make the changes. Congratulations!

  14. Ashley says

    Hi, I am going to a waterpark this week with my son and was planning on packing sandwiches and some snacks for the day. Any suggestions on what brands of lunchmeat to buy? I know previously you had mentioned being careful with those.

    • says

      Hi Ashley, Lunchmeats can be loaded with preservatives so it’s best to always read the labels before buying them. I really like Applegate brand lunchmeat. I get it at both Whole Foods and Publix. Oscar Mayer makes a lunchmeat that is nitrate/nitrite free, and it’s available at most grocery stores. We use that one when I can’t find Applegate. Hope that helps. Have fun at the waterpark!

  15. says

    we are working through the challenge. I already try to only use whole fat milk and milk products but wow msg… the kids are on WIC NONE of the cereal is adhd friendly, old fashion oatmeal is not available just instant pkain which I found has caramel color which is a way to hide sulfur . I had 3 ulcers a 18 and traced it to a medication with sulfer and then I was higjly reactive to sulfer dioxide preservatives for years. after a while they creeped back in and I have little reactions anymore, but my point is its PLIAN why add the color! now my son turns 1 sept 5th after that no more whole milk on wic. so now no cereal and no milk they DO have smuckers natural peanut butterb though! uhg got to go check my bread too though… I think we my just be usuing the $12 in fresh food vouchers for now

    • says

      It is so frustrating to see what they allow on WIC. There are so many better choices that wouldn’t change the cost at all. That is so crazy about the oatmeal they allow. I’m sorry you are having to deal with this red tape but am so glad to see you are finding ways to be creative.

  16. says

    Hi, just found this site and am going to try it with my son, he just started a school and it is going horribly. We mostly eat healthy whole foods already. the dyes and preservatives aren’t really a problem for us, but I am thinking the MSG is. In the link is resources it says citric acid is a source? But I don’t see it in the list you gave. It seems to be in everything. What do you think about this? Also I am assuming that anything that says “natural flavoring” is bad?

  17. Maria says

    How do you feel about stevia? I’ve heard its the safest low calorie sweetener, but I was just interested to know what you think.

    • says

      If it is pure stevia with no additives then it is a natural product and is safe to use. I use a liquid stevia extract in smoothies, oatmeal, and some of my baking. You can find liquid stevia at Whole Foods, Earth Fare, and on Amazon. The brand I use is the 365 from Whole Foods, and I also like NuNaturals Stevia extract. Truvia is NOT the same as pure stevia extract and is full of additives – it is not something I would recommend using.

  18. says

    Hi Susan, I haven’t been able to get through to the following links Shopping Bag and Grocery Store Menus I tried them a wk ago and came back again now:( Is there another way to get to them? I can’t wait to transition my family without my daughter realizing. I tried to talk to her about it and she had a melt down on me b/c she felt like she’t miss out on too many birthday party cakes at school and such. I already made the crispy chocolate cookie treats and they loved it! I didn’t say a thing!!!!

  19. Kate Bartley says

    I’m struggling with cheese – seems like all of them (even the block form of cheese offered by high quality producers such as Tillamook and Organic Valley) contain the work Enzymes in the ingredient statement. Under the Excitoxins list is “anything with the word enzymes,” so I’m assuming this should be avoided. Is there a brand out there you can recommend for the ADHD diet? Thank you so much. This blog has been a wonderful tool for me and my son so far.

    • says

      That language is confusing, and I’m working on an updated version of the guidelines. Enzymes that are used in dairy products are naturally occurring and won’t affect behavior. Enzymes that are used in most other processed foods are not naturally occurring, and that’s where the trouble comes in. Stick with organically produced cheese whenever possible to avoid added hormones and other unnecessary ingredients or processes. I’m sorry for not making that more clear before.

      • Kate Bartley says

        Oh, that makes sense. Thank you! One more question – I was at the natural foods store yesterday and they said that Citric Acid is not a form of MSG. It does seem to be in a lot of natural food products and I’m wondering what your take on this is?

        • says

          There are two forms of citric acid, a naturally occurring form and a artificial form. Unfortunately the food industry usually opts to use the less expensive form, which of course is artificial. There is little evidence that artificially produced citric acid causes harm, but there is also very little research being done on it as well. It’s one of those things I caution against using in high doses, but occasional use is probably ok. Just keep tabs on how much you and your family are consuming in a given day/week and if it seems to be in everything you’re eating you may want to adjust things.
          Here’s an excerpt from a post on about the two kinds of citric acid to help explain:
          “Naturally, citric acid appears in lemon, limes and many other sour-tasting fruit. Have you ever watched the face of a baby when it sucks on a lemon slice for the first time? I always get a kick out of it, watching it pull faces and doing it over and over, not getting enough of it. The food industry makes full use of our cravings for that crisp and tangy taste and adds it en-masse to fruit drinks, spaghetti sauce, baby food, iced tea and everything else that needs a flavour improvement. Of course the industry doesn’t press lemon juice; it creates this stuff artificially.
          Every year worldwide more than 600,000 tons of crystalline citric acid are produced, while the entire harvest of lemons and limes is only 120,000 tons. The official chemical name of citric acid is 2-Hydroxy-1,2,3-propane-tri-carboxylic acid. The reason this artificially-produced citric acid is called “natural” or an “organic acid” is that it has three carbon bonds in its formula and is therefore water-soluble. If an acid has no carbon bond it can’t be called organic. Citric acid actually grows on a fungus, namely Aspergillus niger, the ugly black fungus found around kitchen sink and bathtub tiles. But it comes in handy for manufacturing citric acid by mold fermentation of carbohydrates from molasses.”

  20. emily says

    I loved reading about the diet but i cant get a shopping bag list anymore. Can you please get me one

  21. stacielk says

    So glad I found your site! I recently switched to whole dairy products instead of the others. I have a lot more to change with my kids etc. as far as all this above and the first two weeks, but as you have mentioned, it is a process and takes time.

    I was also wondering about the shopping bag list. Is this still available or do you have a recently updated version?