In Part 1 of this two-part series, I addressed The Food Babe’s allegation that said if your food contains an ingredient your third grader can’t pronounce you shouldn’t eat it – and my stance on that is, then no one would ever eat an organic banana, which contains naturally-occurring phylloquine, tocopherol and palmitoleic acid, which are tongue twisters.
Today in Part 2, as we continue our BHT discussion, let’s start back at that example of our all-natural organic banana. What if I was to tell you that the same chemical found in bananas, that has been shown to cause a 7% increase in lung cancer in non-smokers, has also been found to act as an anticoagulant in large doses and can cause bleeding issues? Yes, it’s tocopherol again. You would need to eat 5,000 bananas in one day to reach the levels (1,000mg) that cause bleeding issues. If you eat a banana or two a day, you won’t develop bleeding issues, as the dose makes the poison.
Using that frame of reference, many research groups have tested the hypothesis that BHT contributes to cancer. Most reports discuss BHT feeding trials in rats, and the data follow two central trends:
The first is that the tumor incidence observed in small studies is not replicated in larger studies. In science we need our sample sizes to be considered ‘representative’ in order to be considered ‘generalizable.’ That means that we need a large sample population in order to say that the findings can be applied to the general population. This is because small sample sizes are prone to sampling errors. A study’s findings are problematic when you see a result in a small sample population but don’t see those same results in a larger population. In this case we’d want to see the same patterns in both the small and larger studies, but we don’t. But, small studies are subject to statistical noise, as a blip in the particular set of rodents makes results appear to be significant—yet they don’t repeat in a larger statistical set.
The second trend observed is what scientists refer to as a dose-response failure. This basically means that if a small amount of a test compound causes a problem, then higher amounts should cause an equal or greater response. It makes sense, as I said above, that the dose can make the poison. Taken in total, there is absolutely no credible evidence that BHT causes cancer in animals, and the IRAC notes its carcinogenicity as “inconclusive”, which means nothing has been observed. Some studies in petri dishes are suggestive, but not conclusive about a BHT cancer risk.
Other BHT feeding studies in monkeys were shown to induce potent effects on the liver, resulting in physiological and cellular abnormalities. However, these studies fed monkeys 500 mg/kg of body weight of BHT for 50 days. That’s akin to a 200lb person eating 50 g (the weight of a tennis ball) of BHT every day for 50 days. The average American consumes approximately 2 mg/day, or 25,000 times lower (per day) than the amount shown to induce these problems in primates. Lung problems were observed in dogs and mice when they were given 75,000-100,000 times the human daily intake.
Of course, there are many fear mongers in the anti-additive space that don’t understand the science. They read the headline or article title and draw a conclusion. These interpretations are not consistent with the science, yet they spread like wildfire throughout electronic media.
Ironically, there are just as many papers that suggest preventative effects from BHT. Of course, these are no fun for fear mongering and are also rather preliminary science, so you don’t have too many health advisers suggesting increased consumption.
Like any chemical added to food it is critical to carefully consider the benefits and risks at realistic concentrations encountered. As I said in my previous post, it is certainly easy to read the reports on risk assessment and toxicity and become worried about possible effects, as they do seem so plausible. However, I reiterate, that careful analysis reveals that biological effects are not observed at the levels actually consumed in the typical diet. BHT, like most food additives, is present in vanishingly low amounts, and its benefits as a product to keep food fresh far outweigh any risks.
While I’m not a parent myself I’m very close to my niece and feel protective of her. I have given her food with BHT in it and I’m not concerned about the long-term impacts on her health, or my own. I also give her bananas, and I’m pretty sure she’ll be OK.
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.