The foods we consume can have different kinds of compounds in them that we didn’t know about. These compounds added to the foods we eat are not always detectable. For instance certain compounds can be listed on the nutrition label and we can’t even taste or see them. Butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene, also known as BHA and BHT, are both phenolic compounds that are added to certain foods in order to preserve fats and oils. Even though these compounds are used to preserve the foods we eat, how do we know that BHA and BHT aren’t bad for us? Even though BHA and BHT have minimal negative effects, they are outweighed by many beneficial attributes and are not bad for us.
Knowing what these compounds are made of, what their functions are, and how they work will help in answering this central question. Even though BHA and BHT both have the same function, they have different characteristics.
“BHA is a mixture of the isomers 3-tert-butyl-4-hydroxyanisole and 2-tert-butyl-4-hydroxyanisole, also known as BOA.”
The molecular formula of BHA is C11H16O2. BHA can be a yellow tainted or white waxy solid and can have an aromatic odor. BHT “also known as 3, 5-di-tert-butyl-4-hydroxytoluene; methyl-di-tert-butylphenol; 2, 6-di-tert-butyl-para-cresol,” has a molecular formula of C15H240. BHT physically looks like a white powder. Even though BHA and BHT are used for the same things, BHA is more stable at higher temperatures than BHT so it is used more. There are other antioxidants that can be used like NDGA but they are more expensive than BHA and BHT. BHA and BHT can be found in certain foods or can be found in certain food packaging. BHA and BHT do not have to be directly put into food and products to work. They can be placed in the packaging of food and will have the same effect. These compounds have not only been used to preserve food, but animal feed and some cosmetic products as well. Without BHA and BHT the foods we eat and products containing fats and oils would not be preserved as long as they could be. The use of BHA and BHT enables us to consume foods for a longer period of time.
These compounds are antioxidants. “Oxygen reacts preferentially with BHA or BHT rather than oxidizing fats or oils, thereby protecting them from spoilage.” BHA and BHT are placed either in or inside the packaging of foods so the oxygen reacts with these compounds instead of reacting with the food which in turn will spoil it. In a sense BHA and BHT slow down the oxidizing of fats and oils because eventually most food expires or goes bad and becomes inedible. BHA and BHT are also “fat soluble and are incompatible with ferric salts.” Since BHA and BHT prevent the fat and oils in food from spoiling, they also prevent the fat and oils in some cosmetic products from spoiling. In addition to preserving cosmetics BHA and BHT are also used in certain pharmaceuticals to be prevented from oxidizing. BHA and BHT can be found in many different kinds of food products. They can be found in “breakfast cereals, snack food, chewing gum, vegetable oils, shortening, potato flakes, granules and chips, enriched rice, and candy.” BHA and BHT can be found in certain cosmetics like lipstick, lotion, and moisturizers as well.
These compounds are also placed inside the packaging of foods. Sometimes when opening a snack or box of food there is a little white package that says “DO NOT EAT” or “THROW AWAY” on it. It is usually a white or clear substance inside. Those packages are silica gel, which are similar to BHA and BHT because they are all used in preserving foods, except silica gel is not used in foods and is not safe to consume. BHA and BHT compounds are also found in rubber and petroleum products, and animal feed. Sometimes you can see if a food or product contains BHA or BHT when reading the nutrition label. On the nutrition label sometimes it will say “BHT has been added to the packaging.” Foods and products that contain fats and oils in them can benefit from BHA and BHT so they can be preserved and therefore used for a longer period of time. BHA and BHT aid in other things relating to the prevention of food and products from becoming rancid due to the oxidization of the oils and fats. “BHT also prevents oxidative rancidity.”
BHA and BHT preserve the color of foods and products as well. When foods or products containing fats and oils become spoiled, their color can change. For example when cereal goes bad it can become stale and moldy which will change its color. BHT and BHA also help maintain the odors of foods and products. When a food becomes rancid it can develop a bad smell. When milk spoils you can tell just by taking the lid off that it instantly has a sour smell. BHT and BHA also help preserve the flavor and taste of foods. After a food has been spoiled, in most cases it has a rancid taste and is not enjoyable or even edible. With BHA and BHT the color, odor, and flavor of foods are being maintained for a longer period of time. BHA and BHT help preserve our foods and products so they are safe to ingest and use in minimal amounts. Even though these compounds have been in many of our food and cosmetic products for a very long time, you can’t help but wonder if they are really safe to come in contact with. “BHA and BHT were given, generally recognized as safe, GRAS, status and no additional studies were required.”
Even though these compounds are considered safe, the amounts in which we receive them are limited. Just because BHA and BHT preserve our foods does not mean we can use mass amounts of them in our foods and packaging to prolong the oxidization process. “The FDA limits their use in food either alone or in combination with other antioxidants to less than or equal to 0.02% of the total fat and oil content.” BHA and BHT can only be used in these limited amounts enforced by the FDA. It is impossible to ingest or come in contact with too much of BHA and BHT because manufacturers add them is such small amounts. If BHA and BHT were not safe to be used in products and product packaging, the FDA would have banned their use by now. BHA and BHT have been used since 1958 and are still being used today. These compounds are not dangerous to use but have been linked to minor health effects in humans. Lots of animal toxicology has been done with these two compounds, but there have only been few records of human reactions to BHA and BHT since its use.
“In 1973 Fisherman and Cohen reported on seven patients with asthma, vasomotor rhinitis with or without nasal polyps, or the combination, who were suspected of intolerance to BHA and BHT.” Even though these patients had these health effects when taking BHT and BHA the details were not given as to why BHA and BHT were considered the reason for these complications. Also another study similar to this was conducted but the same results were not achieved which has proven it inconsistent. “There are no published reports of BHA or BHT challenges resulting in well documented, reproducible asthmatic responses.” Even though it was found that seven patients had asthma, it cannot be directly related to the ingestion of BHA and BHT. In a different study done in 1975 it was found that after giving patients a total dose of 17 mg of BHA and BHT, they developed recurrent urticaria which is also commonly known as hives. “Six of 47 tested to BHA reacted, and 6 of 43 reacted to BHT; it is unclear whether these were the same six patients.”
Even though BHA and BHT could have been the cause of urticaria in these patients, it is a very small number of people who reacted to it this way and is not recurring. This does not prove that BHA and BHT are harmful and will always cause people to get hives when ingesting or coming in contact with these compounds. “Delayed hypersensitivity contact dermatitis through a variety of occupational or medicinal exposures is well documented, but not common.” Skin irritation has been related to BHA and BHT intake but only from very minimal experiences. Urtcaria resulting from these compounds is not common and is not documented as a direct relation to one another. Even though these concerns have resulted from BHA and BHT use, it is not proven to be the cause of these effects on humans The only main concern of BHA and BHT is their carcinogenicity. Carcinogenicity is something that has a tendency to cause cancer in humans.
Animal tests using BHA and BHT “have shown to be cancer promoting and cancer inhibiting.” In some tests BHA and BHT had prevented tumors from developing in mice, and in others the BHA and BHT promoted the development of tumors in mice. Determining whether these compounds promote or prevent cancer in humans depends on various aspects. “The time of administration, type of carcinogens already present in the body, and the target organ affected,” are a few things that would determine whether it promotes or prevents cancer from arising in humans. Even though the carcinogenicity of these compounds is unsure, the use of them was not prohibited. Any kind of chemical compounds can have suspected negative effects on humans. Even though BHA and BHT have had minor effects, their benefits significantly outweigh those effects. The main benefit of BHA and BHT is of course to preserve food and products for a longer period of time.
These compounds can aid us in other ways as well. “BHA and BHT exhibit anti-microbial activity against several common food pathogens and viruses.” Without BHA and BHT it would be a lot easier for our food products to develop viruses and pathogens that can get us sick. By keeping the food from spoiling longer, these compounds also prevent the development of these pathogens and viruses. This in turn “helps retain vitamin E in food which otherwise gets destroyed when fat content is oxidized.” Vitamin E helps prevents free radicals from damaging our body tissue. These free radicals can even harm our organs and cells too. Vitamin E also helps us to build a stronger immune system so we won’t get sick as easily from bacteria or develop viruses. Lastly vitamin E is also essential to our body’s formation of red blood cells. BHA and BHT can help us obtain more vitamin E which is necessary for our health. These compounds can enable us to receive so many more benefits that vitamin E has by retaining the vitamin E in our foods.
“The oxidization of fat, which occurs in the absence of BHA and BHT, produces peroxides which are definitely carcinogenic and mutagenic.” Carcinogenic peroxides can promote cancer and mutagenic peroxides can cause mutations in our cells. These peroxides can be extremely detrimental to us. So in other words, without BHA and BHT these dangerous peroxides would be produced that are harmful to us. The benefits of BHA and BHT are tremendous and outweigh the small possible negative effects of these compounds. Knowing about the different compounds present in your food and products is important. Just because you can’t see or taste them doesn’t mean that they are not there. BHA and BHT were created to help the preservations of food and products containing fats and oils. These compounds are essential in the prolonging of our use of these certain foods and products. Without BHA and BHT we would not be able to improve shelf life of food and the use of products.
Even though BHA and BHT were somewhat connected to asthma and urticaria (hives), they were not declared the direct cause of those conditions. The only concern of BHA and BHT was its carcinogenicity which is unsure due to the confusion and mixed results of its animal testing on mice. The human benefits to BHA and BHT are great ones considering how it is only administered in very minimal amounts. BHA and BHT protect us from pathogens, viruses, and peroxides that can harm us. These compounds enable us to retain more vitamin E which promotes healthier body functions. BHA and BHT have been used for over 50 years. They are not dangerous and have not caused any detrimental effects to humans. We will continue to use BHA and BHT and receive their great benefits.