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

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Food preservatives are added to many processed foods to extend freshness and help prevent bacteria, mold, and other spoilage from occurring. Certain processed foods also contain food additives to enhance flavor or increase the shelf life of the product. BHA and BHT are two common food additives that you might find listed on the package label of many popular foods.

However, many people question the safety of these food additives and it is an understandable concern. Rest assured, though, that both BHA and BHT have been tested for safety and approved for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so long as they meet certain requirements. Learn more about BHA and BHT and why these additives are generally considered safe.

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 in these products 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 is 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 humans, obviously, since we need to breathe oxygen in order 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 probably not something you'd want to eat frequently.

Some products get consumed right away, which means you wouldn't have to worry about any fat going rancid. But other foods, such as a box of cereal, might take you a month or so to go through. Of course, you don't want your cereal to just sit around and go bad—it's a waste of money and eating spoiled food isn't a great idea since you run the risk of developing food poisoning.

Common Uses in Food and Other Products

BHA is added to a number of processed foods including butter, lard, meats, cereals, baked goods, sweets, beer, vegetable oils, potato chips, other snack foods, some nut products, dehydrated potatoes, and certain flavoring agents.

BHT is used in chewing gum, animal feed, preserved meats, dehydrated foods, baked goods, snack foods, certain edible fats, and other foods that contain fats and additional flavoring. Since most of these foods are ultra-processed foods, you may wish to choose foods as close to their natural state as possible if you're wanting to avoid these preservatives.

Both BHA and BHT are found in many ultra-processed foods and types of food packaging as well as numerous brands of cosmetics and other personal care products.

Are BHA and BHT Safe?

The FDA considers both BHA and BHT to be safe for use in processed foods in limited approved amounts. Research has estimated the amount of BHA and BHT that would be present in an average diet and didn't find any problems. In fact, some studies have shown that small amounts of BHA and BHT can actually produce an anti-inflammatory effect.

However, studies suggest that consuming unusually large quantities of BHA may have some interactions with hormonal birth control methods or steroid hormones. While the FDA allows food manufacturers to use both BHA and BHT, additional studies are still needed to ensure its long-term safety.

Other Health Risks

Studies on the potential health risks of BHA and BHT are ongoing. Here's a close look at what some of the current research has to say about foods and other products containing these additives.

  • Cancer: The National Toxicology Program (NTP) Report on Carcinogens states there is enough evidence from animal studies to suggest that BHA could cause cancer in humans, but acknowledges that epidemiological evidence in humans is still lacking.
  • Developmental and reproductive toxicity: Some older animal studies showed that large doses of BHA resulted in reproductive dysfunction, particularly changes in testosterone levels and underdeveloped sex organs.
  • Endocrine disruption: The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has identified BHA as a potential human endocrine disruptor. However, the current evidence determined by scientific studies is still inconclusive. As one study notes, "BHA might be responsible for different endocrine-disrupting effects in humans, but the lack of sufficient evidence does not allow any direct link toward this antioxidant. It might act alone, or together with physiological hormones or any other EDCs to which the population is exposed on a daily basis."
  • Lung and skin irritation: There is some evidence to suggest that large amounts of BHT may cause skin, eye, and respiratory irritation in humans.
  • Organ toxicity: Some older animal studies have shown that larger doses of BHT when applied topically caused kidney, liver, and lung tissue damage. However, researchers determined that lower FDA-approved levels of BHT found in cosmetics were generally considered safe.

As a precaution, vulnerable populations such as those who are pregnant or lactating as well as infants may want to avoid BHA and BHT.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is It Bad for Your Health to Eat Food With BHA and BTH?

While the FDA considers foods containing approved levels of BHA and BHT safe for consumption and there is not enough evidence to show that these amounts pose a threat to human health, larger doses may put you at risk for developing certain forms of cancer. Despite this, cereal manufacturers like General Mills have actually removed BHT from their cereals to help clear up any confusion around safety and put consumers at ease.

How Can You Avoid BHT and BHA in Food? 

The best way to avoid BHT and BHA in food is to steer clear of packaged processed foods and stick to fresh whole foods whenever possible. Excessive consumption of ultra-processed food is linked to a number of chronic health conditions including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, but that has little to do with BHT and BHA and more so to do with the high amounts of fat and added sugar found in these foods.

A Word From Verywell

Food preservatives and additives like BHA and BHT are safe to consume in the specific dose recommended by the FDA, but keep in mind that scientific research on the long-term effects of higher doses is still ongoing. The main health concern may not be the additives themselves, but rather, the nutritional value of the processed foods that contain them. Since BHA and BHT are used in ultra-processed foods with higher fat and sugar content, these foods are not the healthiest choices to eat.

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