By Lauren O’Connor, MS, RD for Nutri-Savvy.
You may tread on it, wear it, and yes, even ingest it! The same chemical used in making tires and the make-up you wear may be found in a wide variety of common, everyday food products.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) is a synthetic chemical found in petroleum, rubber, cosmetics, animal feed, and food packaging. Because it prevents oxidation, it is also used to “preserve freshness” in food products. It works by retarding rancidity and eliminating odors in fat and oil-containing foods. Though an “antioxidant,” this widely-used substance may be cause for concern.
The exposure to BHA in foods increased nearly two-fold from the 1970s to the early eighties, with US annual usage rising from 170,000 kg to 300,000 kg. The additive may be found in butter, meats, cereals, chewing gum, baked goods, snacks, nut products, dry beverage mixes, active dry yeast, dehydrated potatoes and beer! And let’s not forget the environment: If you work around livestock or in the cosmetics, rubber or petroleum industries, you have increased exposure. Fast-food employees who cook and serve fried, oily foods are also more exposed.
While some studies render BHA safe for consumption, others say it may have cancer-causing potential. Studies involving rats, mice and hamsters showed a cancer progression in the fore stomach, an organ humans don’t have. Because of these findings, it may be reasonable to consider it a potential human carcinogen according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, International Agency for Research on Cancer (a division of the World Health Organization) and the State of California.
A study on phenolic antioxidants, including BHT and BHA, suggests that these compounds may enhance mutagen activity in ingested toxins such as Aflotoxin B1, a liver carcinogen.
Nonetheless, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits the usage of BHA in foods. That is because conflicting research suggests the levels used are minimal and that it would take 125 times the amount to cause any toxic affects.
Hyperactivity and Dose-related Concerns
Feingold studies suggest usage of synthetic additives including BHA and its predecessor BHT (a similar compound) may be responsible for behavior dysfunction such as hyperactivity in children. Large doses of BHA may interfere with hormonal birth control, steroid hormones, and affect the liver. With the variety of food products containing BHA available (and in substances around us), even the limited amounts of BHA can add up over time.
Those food products that are known to include BHA include cereals; packaged desserts like cookies, pastries, and cake mix; processed meats like sausage or frozen chicken wings; and finally beer and processed oils.
So read your labels. There are plenty of foods that can remain fresh by the addition of more natural antioxidants such as vitamin E. And limiting highly processed foods in favor of more natural, whole plant-based foods (i.e. fruits and vegetables) can add up to better health. Besides, do you really want to be eating the very substance you may be likely treading upon?