The Food Babe once said that if your food contains an ingredient your third grader can’t pronounce you shouldn’t eat it. I say that in that case no one would ever eat an organic banana, which contains the naturally occurring, yet difficult to pronounce phylloquine, tocopherol and palmitoleic acid. These chemicals are tongue twisters for sure but naturally occurring, harmless and good for you chemicals that nature put in your sun-ripened banana.
We all share concern about the safety of food and food additives. Scary-sounding chemical names create suspicion and fear, and with our endless exposure to information everyone seems to be an expert in deciphering just how dangerous chemicals really are. In fact, a thriving industry that capitalizes on fear of chemicals has cropped up, and of course they profit from selling supplements and organic food that are supposed to be chemical free (spoiler alert, everything is made up of chemicals). We call this scare tactic chemophobia.
Often, this chemophobic industry focuses on food additives – chemicals that impart important properties to food nutrition, stability, or quality – as chemicals to be afraid of. As a professor of horticultural sciences I can tell you food additives are chosen because they are safe for human consumption in the quantities used.
The Food Babe, a member of the chemophobia industry has put a common additive in her crosshairs: butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), found in everything from cereals to gum to food packaging itself. BHT has an outstanding safety record—yet has become the target of recent commentary by scientifically dubious sources.
It may sound strange to eat a chemical that’s also used in food packaging, but what if I told you that one of those chemicals in the all-natural sun-ripened banana has been shown to increase a non-smoker’s risk of lung cancer by 7%?
That chemical is tocopherol and it doesn’t make your banana a dangerous carcinogen. It just means that in large doses the small amount of tocopherol in your banana can do more harm than good, but at lower levels, it’s perfectly healthy.
BHT is simply a synthetic antioxidant. It does the same job that all antioxidants do- it delays changes in food quality that occur from exposure to oxygen and other reactive molecules. It is typically found as a stabilizing agent in food, but also is important in the manufacturing of cosmetics, and even has a role in rubber production. It is most commonly encountered in food containing fats, as it is highly effective in deterring rancidity.
I can understand those that are afraid of BHT. There is a lot of research that shows the relative toxicity of BHT and when those studies are viewed in isolation they can seem reasonably alarming.
Some studies show that BHT can be toxic when consumed in large quantities used lab mice, with some examination of how the compound is metabolized in humans. Rats and humans were fed relatively high levels to determine its biological fate—and found that while it is possible to accumulate BHT in fat tissue if high levels are consumed for days. To reach these toxic levels you’d need to eat almost two tons of cereal in one day. Even at these high levels, BHT is rapidly eliminated as normal consumption continues. About half is gone after a day.
Certainly it is easy to read the reports on risk assessment and toxicity and become worried about possible effects, as they seem so plausible. However, careful analysis reveals that biological effects are not observed at the levels actually consumed in the typical diet. In tomorrow’s post, I will break down the studies and science behind BHT, and dispel some of the biggest myths surrounding this chemical compound.
Editor’s Note 2.7.17: After this post was published Dr. Folta came under attack for alleged financial conflicts of interest. These allegations were later found to be misrepresented. In response to reader questions after the initial allegations we added an editor’s note on his articles on this site that acknowledged the claims, but reiterated the scientific accuracy of his writing for TheScientificParent.org. As the claims have been debunked we have removed our original editor’s note.