Because you asked...let's talk about "freshness" additives

>> Monday, April 20, 2009

A few weeks back I got an e-mail from a reader asking about the additive TBHQ. Cindy wrote, "I have wondered what TBHQ for freshness is and is this bad?" Great question! I had to a little research because I didn't know what this ingredient was either.

TBHQ is the short name for tert-butylhydroquinone. TBHQ is a synthetic antioxidant added to oils and fats to retard spoilage. Vegetable oils contain a natural antioxidant called tocopherol (aka vitamin E); however, the amount present in oils is often not enough for oxidative stability. Adding extra tocopherol doesn't really help, and so a synthetic antioxidant such as TBHQ is often added.

tert-butylhydroquinone or tBHQ

Additives are often added to foods to enhance flavor or texture or to increase shelf life. Fats and oils are susceptible to auto-oxidation. This is not desireable as oxidation results in rancidity and off flavors as well as the loss of vitamins. To combat this, manufacturers often add a small amount of additive antioxidant to their product. Oxygen will preferentially react with the antioxidant rather than oxidizing the fat or oil, thus protecting them from spoilage. The additive may be mixed directly into the product, sprayed onto the product, or even sprayed onto the inner packaging.

Are they safe? Three common synthetic antioxidants frequently used are TBHQ, BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), and BHA (butylated hydroyanisole). The big question is whether these additives are safe or not. The honest answer is that no one really knows.

It doesn't take much of any of these compounds to provide oxidative stability, and they are all considered safe in the amounts used. However, they are all also suspected carcinogens. Studies in animals have shown that consumption of BHA and BHT may increase the risk of cancer and that these compounds may accumulate in body tissue (though they've also been shown to be rapidly excreted in urine). TBHQ is also a suspected carcinogen; however, one study suggests that it does not accumulate in body tissue.

Before freaking out too much over these studies, remember that most of these studies involve animals - not humans - consuming enormous amounts of the compound in question. They are in many ways necessarily unrealistic. A good quote from a commentor of a blog that I like, Molecule of the Day, "How about a general rule: You don't get to call something "poisonous" if the "hazardous dose" would hurt when thrown at your head?" There is some truth in that quote.

On the flip side, there are possible good effects from these synthetic antioxidants. A 1994 study suggests that BHA and BHT may actually retard cancer development. And BHA and BHT are being studied for their antiviral and antimicrobial activities. Researchers are looking at ways to use BHT to treat herpes simplex and even AIDS. BHT is actually sold as a health food supplement in capsule form, particularly as a treatment for herpes family viruses.

Some people may be sensitive to the use of all of these additives and experience migraines, nausea, and other unpleasant side effects. People with a sensitivity to MSG seem particularly susceptible to the nastier side of BHT, BHA, and tBHQ. All three have been associated with children's behavioral problems; however, this association has not been conclusively proven.
tBHQ powder

Where do you find these additives? Well, everywhere. Since getting this question via e-mail, I've seen TBHQ and BHT in many different food products in our household. BHT is commonly added to petroleum products to slow oxidation. You'll also find them in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, fuels, and even embalming fluid.

Should you be concerned about consuming these additives? That's a trickier question. While these additives serve a useful purpose, they clearly have a darker side. What is unclear is whether that darker side exists in the very small quantities that they're consumed in. There is considerable uncertainty in the literature concerning the safety of BHT, BHA, and TBHQ. BHT and BHA may accumulate in tissue (maybe), which presents a greater long term concern to me - especially as a mother.

My bottom line is that I personally am not going to give up foods containing these additives. But, I will be more aware of our consumption of these additives after this. If anything, it increases my resolve to be more aware of what we consume and makes me happy that we have significantly decreased the amount of processed foods that we consume.


Sagan April 21, 2009 at 8:15 AM  

Great information! It definitely pays to be really aware of additives.

PS Thanks for the shoutout :)

laura April 21, 2009 at 9:40 AM  

How interesting. Makes me want to go rummage through my pantry to see what contains those additives :)

fatfighter April 21, 2009 at 8:37 PM  

I have really cut back in the past year on anything with preservatives and additives - it just freaked me out too much! I still have a little, but not much at all. And it's so interesting to me how more people are going that route - back to where we started, you know?

Lori April 22, 2009 at 5:33 PM  

Such great info, Cathy! So helpful. "No one really knows" tends to be the answer for all our additives, doesn't it? :) I do love that quote though and agree that there is some truth to it. Thanks for giving us both sides of the story. It has definitley increased my awareness.

Kelly April 23, 2009 at 7:52 AM  

The things we should know but don't is so overwhelming. Thank you for the great post!


Nithya November 9, 2009 at 2:07 AM  

Thank You. I have become more aware of what I put in my mouth and more importantly what I feed my 3 yr old son. The more I read, the more (processed) food items are getting tossed from my pantry. can't agree enough with fatfigher that we really are going back to where we started and that is such a good thing! I wish more people become aware and switch over sooner than later.

Anonymous August 26, 2011 at 8:54 PM  

I hadn't had a girl-scout cookie in forever. Friend gave me one of 4 types to try. I don't have blood pressure issues but these cookies drove mine through the roof. Luckily, I was schedule to see my Dr. about a frozen shoulder and was there when all heck broke loose. Long story short, I'll never eat those cookies again. Also had some club crackers and reacted with blood pressure, breathing and balance issues. Marked those off my growing list of foods containing TBHQ.

Anonymous February 9, 2012 at 8:31 AM  

Great info! Thanks!

Warner Carter January 9, 2013 at 5:44 AM  

Adinopectin controls changes in metabolic action and fat breakdown. A decrease of this hormone in the body is thought one of the main reasons for obesity and other diseases. The increased production of this hormone speeds up metabolism and increases lipolysis (fat breakdown) in the body.

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