Is This Common Food Additive Causing More Allergies?

It’s been estimated that up to 15 million Americans have a food allergy, and that includes one in 13 children. The prevalence of food allergies in kids has increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, and part of that rise could be attributed to a common food additive known as tBHQ. 

What is tBHQ?

The synthetic food additive tert-butylhydroquinone (tBHQ) is a petroleum-based preservative that is added to a growing number of foods, such as processed nuts, crackers, breads, waffles, butter, ice cream, potato chips, frozen fish products (where it is especially high), and cooking oils. Its purpose is to extend shelf life and prevent rancidity of processed foods. Because it is categorized as an antioxidant, tBHQ protects foods that contain iron from discoloring, making them more appealing to the eye.

The Food and Drug Administration approved tBHQ as an additive in 1972, yet some experts question the safety of its use. In fact, tBHQ is banned in some countries, including Japan. In the United States, Australia, China, and many other countries, however, it is used alone or along with other questionable additives, such as BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and/or BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole). BHA and tBHQ are closely related.

Read about 7 scary food additives to avoid

What we know about tBHQ

Cheryl Rockwell, an assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the College of Human Medicine, has been studying tBHQ for nearly a decade. Thus far, Rockwell has discovered that the additive causes specific cells in the immune system (T cells) to stop performing their normal job of fighting invaders and instead cause the release of proteins that can trigger allergies to foods such as milk, eggs, wheat, shellfish, and nuts—all of which are common food allergens. 

Rockwell has noted that the growing use of tBHQ in our food supply parallels an increase in food allergies as well as the severity of the reactions. She plans to explore why T cells respond to tBHQ by triggering allergic reactions. Hopefully her work, as well as that of others, will further our understanding of food allergies and how to prevent and treat them.

The health risks of tBHQ

The FDA has placed a limit on the amount of tBHQ that can be present in our food. That means no more than 0.02 percent of the oils can be present in a food product, because scientists have no evidence that higher amounts of the additive are safe for consumption. 

Thus far, animal studies have shown that intake of tBHQ is associated with an increased incidence of tumors, enlarged liver, neurotoxic effects, paralysis, and convulsions. Among people, consumption of tBHQ has caused disturbances in vision. Some experts have suggested that tBHQ can affect human behavior and may play a role in attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

Read about this common food additive that's linked to colon cancer

How much tBHQ do people consume?

The World Health Organization reports that the “average” intake of tBHQ among people in the United States is 0.62 mg/kg of body weight. This is 90 percent of what the FDA considers to be acceptable. However, anyone who consumes a high-fat diet may be exceeding the acceptable limit.

The best way to avoid tBHQ is to avoid or limit consumption of the foods mentioned and to focus on whole, natural foods. You also should always read labels, although tBHQ often is not listed on packaging.

Be Food Smart. TBHQ
Food Allergy Research and Education. Facts and statistics
Healthline. The potential tBHQ dangers
ScienMag. Common food additive may be why you have food allergies. 2017 16 July
World Health Organization. International Programme on Chemical Safety 1998, FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives

By Andrea Donsky| August 24, 2017
Categories:  Live

About the Author

Andrea Donsky

Andrea Donsky

Founder & Chief Passionista at See my full bio here.

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