A new study suggests a preservative used in popular foods such as Pop-Tarts, Rice Krispies Treats and Cheez-Its could be bad for consumers.
TBHQ, or tert-butylhydroquinone, is used to extend the shelf lives of nearly 1,250 processed foods, according to the study released by the Environmental Working Group. But it also may harm the immune system.
“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,” Olga Naidenko, EWG’s vice president for science investigations and lead author of the new study, said in a press release. “To protect public health, this must change.”
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The environmental advocacy group is calling for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to reconsider the permitted use of TBHQ in processed foods, as well as urging the agency to test all food chemicals for safety.
The use of the preservative has been defended by food companies and other nonprofits.
“Providing safe, delicious, quality food for consumers is our top priority,” Kellogg Company spokesperson, Kris Bahner, said in an email to USA TODAY. “TBHQ is a common antioxidant, approved for safe use by the FDA, that many companies use in numerous products to help protect food’s flavor and freshness.”
TBHQ is used to help prevent fats from oxidation, which can cause foods to lose flavor, change color and deplete their nutritional value, said Megan Meyer, director of science communications at the International Food Information Council, a nonprofit supported by food, beverage and agricultural industries.
“While there were some concerns in the 80s and 90s about high doses of TBHQ causing precancerous tumors in animal models, a 2004 European Food Safety Authority Panel found that TBHQ is not carcinogenic,” Meyer told USA TODAY via email. “In the U.S., the FDA regulates how much TBHQ can be added to foods: TBHQ levels cannot account for more than 0.02 percent of the fat and oil in the food.”
The study published this week in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. EWG researchers used data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxicity Forecaster, or ToxCast, to assess the health hazards of the most common chemicals added to food