What is it Wednesday: BHT
Last week I stopped at the grocery store on my way home. I didn’t do a meal plan last week or my usual weekly grocery shopping, so I needed to do a brief mid-week shop to get us through till the weekend. I really wanted to get some cereal. We hadn’t had any in awhile and it was sounding really good.
Now I’m sure you all know that cereal is expensive. When you take out the chemicals and add in organic ingredients, it gets uber-expensive! So I was shopping the regular cereal aisle (not in the health-food section), looking for something suitable. I was pleasantly surprised to find this:
Kellogg’s Mini-Wheats. Not frosted or brown sugar or strawberry or anything fancy. Just regular old shredded wheat in mini form. And they were on sale!
The ingredients looked okay:
Whole grain wheat, reduced iron, niacinamide, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), riboflavin (vitamin B2), thiamin hydrochloride (vitamin B1), zinc oxide, folic acid and vitamin B12. To maintain quality, BHT added to the packaging.
Most of the crazy names are vitamins that fortify the cereal. Niacinamide by the way is vitamin B3. Not sure how I feel about fortified cereal. That will have to be the topic of another post. But what really caught my eye this time was the part about adding BHT to maintain quality. What the heck is BHT?
BHT stands for butylated hydroxytoluene. Per Wikipedia, BHT is a fat-soluble organic compound primarily used as a antioxidant food additive. It seems that it acts as a synthetic Vitamin E that keeps food fresh. There is some chemistry language on the Wiki page that explains how this happens.
In layman’s terms, Wisegeek once again has a great explanation. Foods that are high in fat have BHT added to them to prevent the oxidation of fats. Hence the name “antioxidant”. Oxidation of fats just means the fat goes bad and can then taste awful and/or cause health risks.
Basically BHT is an additive that acts as a preservative. It helps food like my cereal have a longer shelf life. BHT is also used as a preservative in cosmetics and jet fuel.
So is it safe? The USDA has obviously approved BHT as a safe food additive since I found it in cereal. It has also been approved by the European Union and is identified as E321. However there seems to be some debate on safety. According to both Wikipedia and Wisegeek, some studies have linked BHT to cancer, while other studies have said it may actually prevent cancer. I wish I could find the actual studies and link them here.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest lists BHT as “Caution”. Their Caution category is given to ingredients that “May pose a risk and needs to be better tested. Try to avoid.” CSPI also mentioned the animal studies that either increased or decreased the risk of cancer.
This post on The Good Human says that BHT has a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that says things like “do not let this chemical into the environment, ingestion causes abdominal pain, and harmful to aquatic animals.” Oh yum – just what you want to eat right? Here’s a link to a MSDS on BHT. I did not find the exact same words as The Good Human mentioned, but be sure to scroll down to Section 11: Toxicological Information to read things like “may cause cancer based on animal test data” and “may cause gastritis, vomiting, hypermotility, diarrhea.”
And here’s a link to a Chemical Safety Card on BHT. Note that it says in all caps with an exclamation mark: “AVOID EXPOSURE OF (PREGNANT) WOMEN!”
I’m sure that the quantities that the MSDS and the Chemical Safety card are referring to and the quantities that are in our food are vastly different. However it is still disturbing that a chemical that has all these warnings is allowed into our food, even in small quantities!
I feel like I’m a broken record. Didn’t I say something very similar last week?
For me, if I was eating cereal everyday, I would not buy a brand with BHT. Actually I will probably try to stay away from it altogether from now on, at least for the food items I bring into my own home. The small quantities of BHT that I come into contact with when eating outside my home are probably not that harmful.
BUT different people react to things differently. That’s why it’s important to read labels and know what’s in your food. The small quantities that I can tolerate might not be tolerable to the next person. Food is very personal. Everyone has to make their own decision about what they eat.
What are your thoughts on BHT? Please share in the comments! I love to hear people’s opinions and would also love to know if you know anything else important about BHT that I did not mention above.