BHT: Friend or Foe?

BHT is moderately common food additive, and a seldom used cosmetic preservative.  BHT is an acronym for butylated hydrotoluene.  Though BHT is not used in natural or organic products, it is moderately used in a variety of food and cosmetic products, some of which are primarily marketed for children and young adults.  BHT is typically the last ingredient listed and looks rather harmless abbreviated as opposed to its full chemical name which would certainly cause consumer to question their purchase.

Butylated hydrotoluene is a chemical derivative of phenol (-OH group attached to a benzene ring) and can be described as a lipophilic (likely to bind to fat) organic compound that is widely used across various industries for its antioxidant properties.  Specifically, butylated hydrotoluene reacts with oxygenating free radicals to decrease the rate of autoxidation.  BHT has a low molecular weight (220.35 grams/mole), which means it can have the ability to be absorbed through the skin when applied topically.  Despite being used in very low concentrations that typically do not exceed 0.1% of a food product, BHT still poses various health concerned when consumer internally or applied topically.  Though BHT is not officially listed as a carcinogen, is is suspected of carcinogenic activity, is known to be mutagenic to mamalian reproductive (somatic) cells, and is toxic to the blood, liver, and central nervous system.  While antioxidants and other preservatives are beneficial in preventing food or product spoilage, why is a food and cosmetic additive with a questionable safety reputation still being used, particularly in vulnerable populations such as children?

BHT is suspected of causing rodent carcinogenic activity, therefore, being slow growing and malignant (Parke & Lewis 2009).  BHT has also been shown to exacerbate chronic urticaria, a rash or red welts that develop from food allergies (Goodman et al. 1990).  A 2000 study found that BHT consumption at low levels did not lead to incidence of stomach cancer, though BHT intake was only measured from mayonnaise and salad dressing intake (Botterweck et al. 2000).  Though there is no concrete evidence of carcinogenicity of BHT in humans, it is usually best to err on the side of caution.  There are limited studies that observed the effects of BHT from cereals or other foods in children.  The suspicion of carcinogenic activity should not be taken lightly.  For that reason butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is a ‘foe.’


Have you used a product or eaten a food with BHT?

Are there any ingredients (food or cosmetics) you would like to see featured in Friend or Foe?  Leave a comment below or send us an e-mail!


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