By Isabella Brady
What may appear as a harmless, obscure ingredient, has quickly dominated some of America’s favorite snacks and treats, with chronic consequences. Tertiary Butylhydroquinone, marked on the ingredient list as TBHQ, is a classic example of an inexpensive preservative that resembles the properties of an antioxidant; and one which should be diligently avoided. The semi organic ingredient acts as a cheap alternative to natural preservatives, with shocking effects beyond what any preservative should ever have.
Breaking it down, TBHQ is derived from a chemical known as butane. Culinary author Vani Hari warns “[TBHQ’s] a chemical that’s created from butane (a very toxic gas) and that it can only be used at a rate of 0.02 percent.” Cousin preservatives include Butylated Hydroxytoluene, or BHT, used in jet fuel AND Frosted Flakes, other cereals, chewing gum, Bath and Body Works lotions, soaps, and lip gloss. Those with immunodeficiency or allergies to other foods, may experience reactions to preservatives of this family, BHT, TBHQ, and BHA (beta hydroxy acid) which contain similar side effects, and are banned in foreign countries. These preservatives impact healthy people with statistical ties to chronic health conditions, such as cancer.
TBHQ and similar preservatives are officially approved by the Food and Drug Administration, for a ‘safe’ amount. Alarmingly, this ‘safe’ dose lacks compilation of other processed foods kids, teens and adults consume in a day, or the consumption above the recommended serving size. While everyone enjoys a break, going to the movies with friends, holidays and parties often allow people to ignore the serving amount, and eat more processed foods than one might normally; yet, many unknowingly exceed the safe amount of preservatives on a daily basis. The majority of today’s processed foods contain these harmful preservatives— even ingredients at restaurants, salad bars, and foods many disregard as healthy, lengthen their shelf life through overuse of preservatives.
Therefore, exceeding the ‘safe’ amount of preservatives has become increasingly common. TBHQ, in studies, has shown significant short term effects, including ringing of the ears, collapse, delirium, nausea, and vomiting. These short term effects can be triggered by ingesting a total of one gram of TBHQ within food. In the long term, eating foods with TBHQ has correlations to arthritis, asthma, hyperactivity, rhinitis, dermatitis, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Additionally, in children, exposure may cause immunity issues, and other potentially life threatening food allergies or restrictions. According to the National Library of Medicine, studies “have found TBHQ to cause liver enlargement, neurotoxic effects, convulsions, and paralysis in laboratory animals.”
Concerningly, recent studies, find prolonged exposure to TBHQ as carcinogenic. Meaning, one might develop cancer, primarily in areas which the compound is digested, such as the stomach and gastrointestinal tract. While merely one gram of the harmful substance may accumulate to lifetime health obstacles, consumption of five grams proves quite lethal.
Legally justified in America, the toxic preservative rides a slippery slope, thus, banned in other countries: Japan, Norway, the UK, the European Union including Finland, Austria, France and 24 other European countries. In the United States, key foods with TBHQ to avoid are: Reese’s, Snickers, Butterfingers, Takis, most instant noodles/ramen, microwave popcorn (depending on brand), Chick-fil-a chicken, McDonalds fries/chicken nuggets, Taco Bell beans, Cinnabon cinnamon rolls, Pop Tarts, cereal brands (vary), Cheez-its, and Rice Krispies Treats to name a few. There are an estimated 1,250 snacks available in America with TBHQ, and an overwhelming amount of restaurant foods, and frozen components that are not documented. One way to be mindful of your TBHQ/BHT/BHA consumption is to read the ingredients list on your processed foods. Though it may appear tedious, look for them toward the end of the list, and you will be surprised by how many foods you eat that contain these preservatives. One way to enjoy your snacks again, is to push for a ban of TBHQ and others of the family in the United States, or start small, and write a letter to your local food manufacturer and let them know you will not consume their foods, and you hope they will reconsider their cheaper alternatives. With enough support, food companies will sacrifice the cheaper preservative for more demand. Foods with tocopherols are a good replacement, as it offers an organic preservative.
While it may be tempting to reach for your favorite snack, is it worth it? With scientists still measuring the short term effects of the phenol, it is possible the long term effects will be more pronounced in the next decade of research, and worse than injuries to immunity and the chronic illnesses currently known. Food can be great to replenish energy, or unwind with friends, however, effects of processed foods approved by the FDA can be sinister, and a favorite treat may come back to haunt one later in life.