Antioxidants are touted for their ability to reduce free radical damage and confer antiageing effects. Beverage producers often label their products as sources of “antioxidants.” However, they also act as food preservatives, owing to their chemical properties in preventing food decomposition.1
Unbeknown to many, synthetic antioxidants are added to many food types instead of natural ones. Although these synthetic antioxidants act as food preservatives and preclude undesirable rotting and deterioration, this does not rule out the detrimental effects of long-term synthetic chemical abuse.2,3
The overall purpose of antioxidants is to prevent oxidation. Oxidation is a chemical process that involves highly reactive free radicals that are known to cause cancer and premature aging. Naturally occurring antioxidants include retinoids (vitamin A), bioflavonoids (citrin), polyphenols (hydroxytyrosol), tocopherols (vitamin E) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). These beneficial antioxidants play a significant role in the prevention of cancer, heart disease, aging, and immune deficiency diseases. Today, many researchers and health critics are questioning the safety of synthetic antioxidants such as butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and propylgallate.3 The use of these common synthetic alternatives has increasingly become viewed as a threat to human health around the world.
Synthetic antioxidants were first introduced into packaged foods in the 1940s. From the start, they were primarily added to edible fats and fat-containing foods for their ability to prevent food from becoming rancid and developing unpleasant odors. As far as healthy nutrition goes, aesthetically pleasing food does not necessarily imply that the food is “good for you.” Although in theory, it would be convenient to have access to products that have a long shelf-life, it must also be understood that naturally grown foods are not grown to “last forever” or look identical — an ideology that marketers would like consumers to believe.
First introduced in 1947, BHA is primarily used as a food preservative. As time went on, it also began to appear in food packaging, animal feed, rubber and petroleum products. Surprisingly, it has various applications in personal care products, such as antiageing formulations and acne treatments. Similarly, BHA is also incorporated in statins, a class of drugs used to treat high cholesterol and prevent cardiovascular disease. The molecular structure of the BHA compound allows it to scavenge free radicals and prevent other free radical reactions from occurring. Along with other synthetic antioxidants, there is considerable controversy surrounding the use of BHA in foods, as many studies suggest it is a human carcinogen.5
Similar to BHA, BHT is a synthetic variant of vitamin E. It is incorporated into food to prevent free radical damage that can cause food to rot, elicit a change in taste and produce putrid odors. In addition to being added to fats in food, BHT is also found in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, jet fuels, rubber, petroleum products, and embalming fluid. Despite the controversy surrounding the safety and carcinogenic potential of BHT, it is conventionally used as a replaced for BHA.6
BHT and BHA will often appear in foods that are mislabeled, claiming to be “free from preservatives” as they can be categorized as antioxidants. Their synthetic quality, however, will not produce the same health benefits as natural antioxidants. A study by the National Library of Medicine demonstrated the link between BHT and lung tumor development.BHT promotes the development of tumors from previously initiated cells.7 Another study done in the 1980s tested the behavioral and developmental effects of BHT on the bodyweight of neonatal rats. The results suggested that a daily dose of BHT had a significantly adverse effect on body weight.8 The latter highlights the importance of a nutritionally balanced gestation period, which is crucial for the development of the fetus and baby once born. Allowing toxins to enter the development process will adversely affect essential developmental processes.
If synthetic antioxidants such as BHA and BHT are possible carcinogens, then why do countries such as the US include these food additives into products that are then consumed by millions? Although BHA is banned in almost every country worldwide, including Japan and most parts of Europe, it is still permissible for use in the US. At present, the US incorporates BHA and BHT into a variety of foods, including meat patties, processed burgers, hot dogs, cereal and chewing gum, among others.
A successful business is needed to support a healthy economy, but who determines the measure of success? By examining the way corporate food players make their decisions, the monetary value may be the leading factor. Another argument as to why the inclusion of such harmful chemicals in the food chain is overlooked in the US is the idea that the American healthcare system thrives on sickness. This idea was voiced recently by a Canadian food expert to Yahoo! Voices Contributor, Anne Copley.9 She suggested: “The US does not have a healthcare system. Rather, it is a sickness system that thrives on people being ill. Far more profit is generated by sickness than health.” Owing to the fact that sickness stimulates a client base, it generates more profit than healthiness. She added: “Wealthy American businesses attack anyone that poses a threat to their profits, regardless of how factual the information is.” Food quality is essential to maintaining health. When foods of synthetic quality are distributed to entire populations, detrimental effects on public health will be apparent with time.11
When comparing the toxicology of BHT and BHA with the toxicology of naturally occurring vitamin E, high doses of all three are shown to impair blood clotting, owing to the antagonism with vitamin K. BHT has a toxic effect on the lungs and increases the incidence of liver tumors in AAF feed mice. Other research suggests that BHA can induce the formation of stomach tumors.12,13 From the research, it is clear that there is an associated link between BHA and BHT and the instigation and promotion of tumor formation. In contrast, vitamin E in its natural form is not carcinogenic. Although the ingestion of high doses of BHA and BHT may be necessary to bring about these carcinogenic effects, vitamin E can be used in high amounts without any risk of adverse carcinogenic consequences.
Today, synthetic antioxidants are also used in diesel oil preservation. A study published in the April 2006 edition of Fuel demonstrated that synthetic vitamin E was comparatively more effective than natural vitamin E. Researchers observed that a significantly lower dose of synthetic antioxidant was needed in palm diesel to achieve the minimum rancimat induction period (smallest amount of time needed to initiate the oxidative stability of biodiesel blends) in 6 hours.14 If these synthetic antioxidants have such a powerful effect on biodiesel, consumers should question the effect of these “chemicals” on the human body. According to research done in Japan, the ability of synthetic antioxidants to have a carcinogenic effect depends on the organ in question.6 It was observed that BHT inhibited carcinogenesis in the liver of mice, yet it promoted the growth of urinary bladder tumors and thyroid carcinogenesis. Similarly, in rodent models, BHA was shown to promote carcinogenesis in the stomach and urinary bladder of mice and inhibit carcinogenesis in the liver. Although BHA and BHT may spell bad news for consumer health, packaged food today has strict labeling requirements, thus giving consumers confidence in what they are eating.
1. M. Laguerre, et al., Prog. Lipid Res. 46(5), 244–282 (2007).
2. R. Kahl, et al., Z. Lebensm. Unters. Forsch. 196(4), 329–338 (1993).
3. M. Mona, et al., Asian Journal of Plant Sciences 11, 100–108 (2012).
4. S. Hasslberger, “Synthetic Antioxidants Can Harm Your Health, Networking for a Better Future,” Organic Consumers Association (2007).
5. National Toxicology Program, Department of Health and Human Services, “Butylated Hydroxyanisole, Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition,” CAS No. 25013–16–5 (2011).
6. N. Fukushima, et al., Critical Reviews in Toxicology 15(2), 109–150 (1985).
7. A. Malkinson, Crisp Data Base National Institutes of Health (2012).
8. O. Meyer, et al., Toxicology 16(3), 247–258 (1980).
10. G. Williams, et al., Food and Chemical Toxicology 37(9–10), 1027 (1999).
12. National Toxicology Program, Natl Cancer Inst. Carcinog. Tech. Rep. Ser. 150, 1–131 (1979).
13. R. Kahl, et al., Z. Lebensm. Unters. Forsch. 196(4), 329–338 (1993).
14. Y. Liang, et al., Fuel 85(5–6), 867–870 (2006).
For more information: Corresponding author Stella Metsovas, BS, CCN, is the founder and principal of Stella Metsovas, LLC, a California-based media and health, consulting and clinical company and Paolo Pontoniere, a California-based science writer, is Vice-President of Corporate Communications and HIDROX Evangelist at CreAgri, Inc. ( ppontoniere at creagri.com)
October 2, 2019