BHA and BHT Keep Foods Fresh, but Are They Safe?

Breakfast cereal
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Processed foods make up the bulk of grocery store offerings. These foods almost always contain some sort of food additives designed to enhance flavor or increase the shelf life of the product. BHA and BHT are two of those additives that you might find listed on the package label of many popular foods.

Many people question the safety of these food additives and it is an understandable concern. Rest assured, though, both BHA and BHT have been tested and used safely in our foods for quite a long time.

What Are BHA and BHT?

Food manufacturers add butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) to foods like cereal and other dry goods to help the fats stay fresher longer. Both BHA and BHT are antioxidants, which means they can protect other compounds from the damaging effects of oxygen exposure. In a way, BHA and BHT are similar to vitamin E, which is also an antioxidant and often used as a preservative as well.

Processed foods like potato flakes and dry breakfast cereals are usually packaged in air-proof packaging filled with something inert and harmless like nitrogen gas. But once you open the package, the contents are exposed to oxygen in the air. 

Oxygen is good for us, obviously. We need to breathe oxygen constantly to stay alive. But, oxygen isn't such a good thing for processed foods because it reacts to fats and makes them go rancid. Foods with rancid fats taste bad and while a little rancid fat won't hurt you, it's not something you'd want to eat frequently.

Some products get used right away so it doesn't really matter, but it might take you a month or so to go through a box of cereal. You don't want your cereal to sit there and go bad—it's a waste of money and eating spoiled food isn't a great idea.

Are BHA and BHT Safe to Consume?

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers both BHA and BHT to be safe to use in processed foods.

Researchers have estimated the amount of BHA that would be present in an average diet and didn't find any problems. Furthermore, scientists have determined it would take a daily consumption of at least 125 times that amount for BHA to become toxic.

Likewise, BHT is also considered to be safe. However, studies suggest that consuming unusually large quantities of BHT may have some interactions with hormonal birth control methods or steroid hormones. It may also increase levels of liver enzymes. Currently, the FDA allows food manufacturers to use BHT, but additional safety studies are suggested.

A Word From Verywell

All in all, these preservatives are safe to consume, and you certainly don't want to eat foods that have gone rancid. However, the main concern may not be the preservatives themselves but the nutritional value of the processed foods you're eating. Since BHA and BHT are used in foods with a high-fat content, there's a good chance the foods themselves are high in calories. Overall, this may not be the right choice for your diet. 

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Article Sources
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS) Opinion: Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA). 2015.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS) Opinion: Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT). 2015.