This article starts a series on mystery ingredient, things I find on food labels that look suspiciously un-foodlike. In other words: ingredients you would never see in a cookbook.
I start this series today with an oldie. It seems like nearly every breakfast cereal has BHA or BHT in the packaging or in the actual cereal. When I was growing up, this was the litmus test for whether or not I could get my mom to buy me the cereal. I don't know if it was just that she was trying to avoid any kind of preservative, or if she felt there was something specifically wrong with these two ingredients. In retrospect, it might have just been a convenient way to rule out any breakfast cereal with a high sugar content or a colorful character on the front.
BHA and BHT can also be found in chewing gum, baked goods, butter, and in snack foods like potato chips. They are also found in pet food and in cosmetics. BHA and BHT are put into food, food packaging, and other products to keep the fats in those products from going rancid, and also sometimes as a yeast-defoaming agent. Basically, BHA and BHT are synthetic, fat-soluble anti-oxidants.
Because of the oxidative characteristics of BHA and BHT, they are not a neutral substances. It is believed that BHA and BHT might promote some cancers (specifically those involving tumors), while perhaps inhibiting others as natural anti-oxidants are felt to do. ( The 11th Report on Carcinogens published in 2005 by the NIH lists BHA as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen") But while they may or may not be good for you in food, BHA and BHT have interesting antimicrobial and antiviral properties. BHT is being investigated for the treatment of herpes simplex (which apparently it can kill on contact in a petrie dish) and AIDS.
On a side note, it appears stoners should really try to avoid BHA (and probably BHT). A study performed in 2002 at UCLA on the synergy between THC and BHA suggests, that in lung tumor cells, BHA "significantly enhanced the necrotic death resulting from concurrent exposure to THC." So, bad news: no more munching on Cocoa Krispies while high.
Other countries are not as blaisé as the US about BHA and BHT. BHT has been banned in Sweden, Australia, Romania, Japan (since 1958!) as well as other countries. Even McDonald's (hardly the harbinger of good health) removed BHA from its products in 1986 because of health concerns! BHT and BHA are thought by some to cause liver and kidney malfunctions in animals, which is a concern since they are often found in pet foods, and a lot of the literature on-line in the US focuses in this area.
Is anyone trying to replace it in US products? It seems that there is interest in the exploration of natural anti-oxidants (citrus oils, rosemary oils) to take the place of these synthetic ones, but no big movement seems to be afoot.
Conclusion: I am glad someone synthesized these, they sound useful for *something*. But as far as ingesting them myself in food? I am going to try to avoid them whenever possible. Most of the items containing these ingredients are things I would avoid for other reasons. And, after all, how would I know what the risks are? I might be prone to the exact cancers these increase, or I might not. But why roll the dice?