As controversy goes, Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT or its additive number E321) is a front runner. BHT has been the cause of much controversy for many years. The chemical was banned in Japan as far back as 1958, as well as its chemical cousin Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA). There is a wealth of concerning and yet conflicting articles and views on both these chemicals. We will focus on BHT here today. BHT is a fat soluble synthetic compound which is frequently used for its ability to preserve foods, especially stopping fats going rancid and in cosmetics as an antioxidant also. Further uses include pharmaceuticals, jet fuel, rubber, electrical transformer oil and embalming fluid. Types of foods it is commonly found in are: breakfast cereals, sweets (candy), chewing gum, enriched rice, dried potato flakes, crisps (potato chips), freeze dried meals, sausages and foods containing fats or oils. It would appear, that its versatility knows no bounds, yet for many years there has been mounting pressure to see it banned across the world.

There are many articles stating it is banned in the UK and other EU countries. It is not permitted in infant foods (USA included) and yet it is still used in other foods. Food Maker UK state BHT as a petroleum derivative which can provoke allergic reactions in some people, a possible trigger for hyperactivity and other intolerances. Further-more and more concerningly still, they state that there are serious concerns over carcinogenicity and estrogenic effects. Indeed, they refer to BHT causing tumours in lab animals during the application of large doses of the chemical. Despite official committees of experts recommending that BHT be banned in the UK, industry pressure has prevented this. McDonalds removed it from their foods in the 1980’s and other companies have followed suit, with General Mills being another giant in the food market which has removed BHT. General Mills claimed the move was not down to safety issues, only that they felt customers would embrace such a move.

Cynics may suggest General Mills comments offer them some protection from potential future liability claims, yet their move is certainly welcomed. As other cereal providers have shown, there is no need for BHT to be used in the first place. Vitamins A, C and E along with rosemary and thyme extracts are used safely by fellow competitors. From the 1970’s many studies have been conducted on lab animals with BHT, which have led to an unimaginable amount of deaths. Still the controversy rages on. There have been two studies which have claimed that BHT is in fact anticarcinogenic due to the antioxidant properties of the chemical. The first of these was conducted in 1991, by GM Williams who stated

“These results suggest that the chemoprevention by BHT of cancer resulting from low-level long-term carcinogen exposure may be achieved at doses that do not produce adverse effects.”

A Taiwanese study in 1999 led to the claim that “the first demonstration that synthetic phenolic antioxidants decrease the N-acetylation of carcinogens and formation of DNA-carcinogen.”

Countering these arguments is a vast amount of research via many other studies.

In 1993 Kahl, R. and Kappus, H. investigated the toxicology of the synthetic antioxidants BHA and BHT in comparison with the natural antioxidant vitamin E. Despite finding that all three did possess anticarcinogenic properties at high dosage, BHA and BHT had carcinogenic effects which meant they could not be used to fight cancer or prevent it. Specific toxic effects to the lungs were noted in BHT, as was induced liver tumours over long-term experiments. All findings agree that both BHA and BHT are tumour promoters. They went on to conclude that the low levels of BHA and BHT used at present in foods, drug and cosmetics are likely harmless.

Malkinson, A.M., of the Crisp Data Base National Institute of Health reported in 1999:

 “…The food additive, butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), encourages the development of tumors from previously initiated cells. …Chronic administration of BHT to inbred mice down-regulates the pulmonary concentrations of the alpha isozyme of protein kinase C (PKCa) and calpain in promotion-sensitive strains … “

Safer AM, al-Nughamish AJ, Histol Histopathol 1999 Apr;14(2):391-406

“BHT resulted in a significant increase in liver weight. The liver cells presented gradual vacuolization, cytoplasmic disintegration, “moth-eaten” appearance, ballooning degeneration, hepatocellular necrosis, aggregation of chromatin material around the periphery of the nuclear envelope, SER proliferation, RER clumping with broken cisternae, withered and autolyzed mitochondria, augmentation of lipid droplets and glycogen depletion. “

In 2000, GM Williams conducted another study and stood by his earlier findings that not only was BHT not carcinogenic but it was indeed anticarcinogenic. Studies which do show BHT to be carcinogenic do tend to be dose dependant, although surely for safety alone the chemical should not be being used in anything that can be ingested or which comes into contact the skin. The respected David Suzuki Foundation state that BHT can:

  • induce allergic reactions in the skin,
  • under long-term exposure in high doses, be toxic in mice and rats causing thyroid, liver and kidney problems, whilst further disrupting lung function and blood coagulation,
  • act as a tumour promoter in certain situations,
  • possibly mimic estrogen,
  • prevent male sex hormone expression,
  • have adverse reproductive effects.

The EWG Cosmetic Database score the chemical Fair and 4 out of 10. They raise moderate concerns as irritation (skin, eyes or lungs). Organ system toxicity (non-reproductive). Other Low concerns: data gaps and endocrine disruption. We agree that there are data gaps and longer-term studies on the chemical need to be completed to gain true clarity on whether it is carcinogenic. There is more than an abundance of evidence that BHT is a toxin either way and should be avoided. There is not even a need for it, as there are other alternatives which are safe or far safer. There will no doubt be people out there that have no fear over BHT and will dismiss all safety concerns. For those, it is their choice and we strongly believe they are free to make that choice. To those of you who are health savvy and wanting to be as toxic free as possible, avoid BHT like the plague! There really is an untold mass of reading out there available on BHT, much of it conflicting and confusing but interesting all the same. We recommend you start at further reading via our reference list, which will give you a great start. We thank you for taking the time to read this article and we will be back with another soon. Until then, keep it clean!



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