WASHINGTON — Most shoppers probably appreciate preservatives for their ability to keep food around longer before it spoils. Unfortunately, a new report finds hundreds of popular, processed foods may contain one ingredient which harms the human immune system.
Researchers from the Environmental Working Group say nearly 1,250 products contain the shelf life-extending chemical tert-butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ. They find this preservative, used in Pop-Tarts, Rice Krispies Treats, Cheez-Its, and countless other products, disrupts immune health in both animal and non-animal tests. It may even weaken the effectiveness of vaccines against viruses like COVID-19.
“The pandemic has focused public and scientific attention on environmental factors that can impact the immune system,” says Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., study lead author and EWG vice president for science investigations, in a media release. “Before the pandemic, chemicals that may harm the immune system’s defense against infection or cancer did not receive sufficient attention from public health agencies. To protect public health, this must change.”
What chemicals are mixing into our food?
Researchers looked at data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxicity Forecaster, or ToxCast, during their study. Along with examining health hazards from preservatives, the team studied “forever chemicals,” or PFAS. These chemicals, commonly used in making food packaging, can migrate from the wrappers to the food itself.
The ToxCast analysis shows TBHQ appears to have a link to poorer immune system health in toxicology testing. EWG researchers call TBHQ a pervasive ingredient in processed foods. The food industry has been using it for decades, with its only function being to prolong shelf life.
Study authors add previous reports point to TBHQ impacting how well flu vaccines work as well as heightening food allergies. Non-animal tests reveal TBHQ can affect immune cell proteins at similar doses which cause harm in animal experiments.
For PFAS, researchers gathered every publicly available study revealing how the chemicals move from the packaging to the food. In 2017, nationwide testing discovered that several fast food chains use wrappers, bags, and boxes covered in highly-fluorinated chemicals.
The EWG team reports that PFAS also suppresses immune function and reduces the potency of vaccines. They add that recent studies find there may also be a link between PFAS exposure and the severity of COVID-19.
The ToxCast results for most PFAS, however, did not match the data from older animal and human tests. Researchers say this just shows how little is known about PFAS and the harm such products may cause consumers.
So why is all this stuff in our food?
Researchers contend the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t consider the latest science when regulating food additives. Although companies can legally add certain products to foods, EWG finds some may increase cancer risk, harm the nervous system, or disrupt hormone levels.
Study authors add that the FDA also often allows food manufacturers to determine which chemicals are safe for consumption. Preservatives like TBHQ were approved to use years ago and have not been reassessed since then.
“Food manufacturers have no incentive to change their formulas,” says Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at EWG. “Too often, the FDA allows the food and chemical industry to determine which ingredients are safe for consumption. Our research shows how important it is that the FDA take a second look at these ingredients and test all food chemicals for safety.”
Are there less toxic options available?
The study finds manufacturers can still make processed foods without potentially dangerous additives. Researchers recommend that shoppers read their food labels carefully. TBHQ is commonly, but not always, listed with the other ingredients. However, this won’t be the case if the chemical is used in the packaging process and seeps into food later.
EWG is recommending that toxicity testing be a priority when it comes to chemicals added to food. Study authors are also calling on the FDA to close loopholes which allow unsafe food additives to stay on the market.
The study appears in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.