What Is TBHQ, And Why Is It In Your Food?

Tertiary Butylhodroquinone (TBHQ), like many food additives, is used to extend shelf life and prevents rancidity. It’s classified as an antioxidant (not to be confused with a natural antioxidant) and it’s used to protect foods with iron from discoloration. Notably, it’s also used in varnishes, lacquers, pesticide products, cosmetics and perfumes – all to reduce the evaporation rate and improve stability.

An antioxidant is defined in South African regulations as “any substance which delays, retards or prevents the development in foodstuffs of rancidity or other deterioration due to oxidation, but does not include substances added to foodstuffs for purposes other than antioxidation which nevertheless have an antioxidant action.”

While it may offer convenience to food manufacturers, some health activists liken TBHQ to putting lighter fuel into your body.

So what do authorities permit? Both the European Food Safety Authority (EDSA) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have evaluated TBHQ and determined that it is safe to consume at the concentration allowed in foods. In the US, the FDA sets an upper limit of 0,02% of the oil or fat content in foods.

It may be harmful when consumed over the limit set by the FDA.

In South Africa it is permitted for use only in certain foodstuffs containing fats and oils, and regulated in terms of section 15(1) of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act (Act 54 of 1972). By law, manufacturers are required to provide this detail on the labels of products. According to the regulations, “Every package containing a preservative or antioxidant intended to be used in food shall bear a label stating clearly its composition, and no person shall advertise, sell or use a preservative or antioxidant for foodstuffs, any preservative or antioxidant which is not specified.”

Is TBHQ Bad For Us?

This is where it gets interesting. Government authorities have set limits on how much TBHQ can be added to food, so we naturally assume it is safe. However, there are red flags around TBHQ that consumers need to be aware of.

Writing for the Huffington Post, Dr Joseph Mercola is more circumspect about TBHQ in food, saying: “How about TBHQ, a chemical preservative so deadly, just five grams can kill you?”TBHQ | Longevity Live

Mercola writes that “in 19th and 21st meetings, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives determined that TBHQ as safe for human consumption at levels of 0-0,5mg/kg of body weight. However, the Codex Commission later reset the limits to between 100 and 400mg/kg, depending on the food it’s in. That’s quite a discrepancy in supposedly ‘safe’ limits! So is the safe level zero, or 400mg/kg?”

In South Africa the guidelines are around 200mg/kg, depending on the food product. This is why it is so important for consumers to look at the ratios of TBHQ in the food they consume.

Mercola cites A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives, saying 1g of TBHQ can cause:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Delirium
  • Sense of suffocation
  • Collapse

It is important to note, however, that there are also other studies that have shown opposite effects, including inhibition agains HCA-induced carcinogenesis (by depression of metabolic activation) for TBHQ and other phenolic antioxidants (TBHQ was one of several, and not the most potent). The EFSA considers TBHQ to be non-carcinogenic. A 1986 review of scientific literature concerning the toxicity of TBHQ determined that a wide margin of safety exists between the levels of intake by humans and the doses that produce adverse effects in animal studies.

Mercola also says that TBHQ is “not suspected to be a persistent toxin, meaning your body is probably able to eliminate it so it doesn’t bio-accumulate.”

What Would You Recommend As A Substitute For This Food Item?

Bear in mind that you’re going to find TBHQ in a lot of fast food that you eat, such as processed hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and French fries. Microwave popcorn, chewing gumm, margarine and even cooking spray contain this ingredient.

You really need to be mindful of how often you use or consume foods with this additive. Try to avoid eating foods with this substance or – at the very least – limit consumption to the odd indulgence. Rather substitute by making your own homemade burgers, homemade crumbed chicken and homemade oven-baked chips, using natural farm butter or extra virgin olive oil.

For healthy recipes, have a look at our Barefoot In The Kitchen series.