These Common Food Preservatives Can Cause Cancer

These Common Food Preservatives Can Cause Cancer


Food preservatives are used in processed foods to preserve color, odor, and appearance, and to inhibit the growth of mold. Additionally, foods can be preserved naturally through canning, fermentation, and freezing. Today, food preservatives often go unnoticed on long lists of ingredients, but some of the more dangerous additives are worth avoiding. Some may even be carcinogenic. Let’s take a closer look:

Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)

BHT and BHA are two closely related food grade antioxidants that are used in foods containing fats and oils to keep them from going rancid and to prolong shelf life. They’re found in foods like cereal, dehydrated potatoes, frozen meals, baked goods, chewing gum, beer, and some fruit drinks. But according to Berkeley Wellness, both preservatives are “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”. The Center for Science in the Public Interest lists BHA as an additive to avoid and puts BHT in its caution column.

Read more about these gnarly food preservatives

Nitrates and Nitrites

Again, these two preservatives are closely related. Both slow spoilage and give that pink color to processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, ham, and lunch meats. Both preservatives combine with stomach fluids to form nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. An NIH-AARP study linked processed red meat to a 10 percent increased risk of prostate cancer with every 10 grams of increased intake.

Read more about how McDonald’s simplified its chicken recipe to exclude chemicals and preservatives


Tert-Butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) is a synthetic food grade preservative derived from petroleum. It’s used to preserve unsaturated fats in chocolate, frozen fish, vegetable oils, and animal fats. TBHQ has been associated with nausea, vomiting, and what’s more, prolonged exposure may cause cancer in lab animals. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), one study found that TBHQ increased the incidence of tumors in rats.

Photo: jeffreyw

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Sara Novak specializes in health and food policy writing for Discovery Health. Her work has also been featured on TreeHugger,, TLC Cooking, and Animal Planet. After graduating from the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia, Sara headed up the communication efforts for a national scholarship program in Washington, D.C. Sara has also handled copy writing and public relations for a global environmental consulting firm. She loves fiddling with healthful recipes, traveling, and exploring life atop her yoga mat. Today, Sara lives in Charleston with her husband and two lovable cocker spaniels, Madison and Bella.