Two molecules are in the news. No, it is not because they advance our sex lives or help us live longer. It is because recent studies suggest that they are dangerous. These renegades are tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) and titanium dioxide (TiO2). Why are these two additives suspect? Are the fears overblown? Why are they added in the first place? How will they affect my personal eating behavior?
Food additives are under attack from two different directions. One way is to discredit ultra-processed foods. Avoiding ultra-processed foods is NOT about processing. It is about eliminating food additives. Any food with an additive is suspect. The other way is to show that individual food additives are toxic or unsafe. Last week I wrote about the first type of attack. This week I discuss the case against and for these two chemicals. Note, when we read about chemicals in food the connotation is negative. When we read about molecules in food the connotation is positive. Is there really any difference between a chemical and a molecule? Yes and no, but in this context there is no difference.*
TBHQ is in our crackers, peanut butter cups, and cooking oils. It is in hundreds of products on supermarket shelves. Only clean-food fanatics have avoided it in their diets. TBHQ is an antioxidant used in processed foods. It keeps oils and dry foods from producing oxidized fatty acids and going rancid. Do we need it in our food?
Why should we worry? A recent study (1) by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that TBHQ “may affect immune response in people.” A news article from the NY Post noted that it can be found in many foods including “Pop-Tarts, Rice Krispies Treats and Cheeze-Its.” The Post article quotes the senior author of the article suggesting that “poor diets may have contributed to the severity of the coronavirus outbreak.” The study investigated TBHQ and another series of compounds, PFAS (per-and polyfluroalkyl substances). PFAS are found in linings of food-packaging materials. They “may leach into food contained within the package.” My attention is on TBHQ because I am more familiar with the molecule.
How was this study done? It was not a direct challenge study. Rather, it was a database-search project. The researchers identified 15 studies performed in the last decade that showed immune-response effects. Most of the studies were direct challenges of TBHQ on animals or cell lines. Only two of these studies referenced involved feeding diets containing TBHQ. The article provides doses used in each study. I have no idea how they relate to normal does taken up by typical TBHQ consumers. Also, it is not clear how treating cell lines relates to ingestion of the compounds in a food matrix.
Are the fears overblown? We see mixed reactions on the web. IFIC suggests that TBHQ is safe when consumed in moderation. Dr. Axe adds a potential causer of cancer, neurological symptoms, food allergies and other worries. Dr. Sean O’Keefe, a contributor to this blog, states that studies show negative effects at high doses. The FDA regulates the amount of TBHQ allowed in foods. FDA allows the molecule at low doses.
To add to the controversy, TBHQ is a GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) substance. It has been used as an additive for a long time and has shown no adverse effects in the food supply. Critics of GRAS additives suggest it means that “the FDA allows companies to self-determine whether the additives and preservatives used in their manufacturing are safe for long-term human health.” That is a gross oversimplification as to what GRAS stands for. It will not surprise anyone that food scientists and toxicologists support the GRAS policy. Certain biological scientists and anti-processed-food advocates call for extensive safety testing of all GRAS additives.
Why is it used? Oils, fats, and dry foods oxidize. Oxidized fatty acids produce off flavors and are toxic. Antioxidants such as TBHQ help prevent oxidation and its consequences. Vitamins A, C and E are natural components of perishable fruits and vegetables. These vitamins protect fresh produce from oxidation (2). Unfortunately, they do not protect fats, oils and dry foods from oxidative processes.
What alternatives do we have? Two other artificial antioxidants, BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are also additives approved for use in foods. These alternatives are not suitable to people who oppose synthetic additives. Cutting back on dry foods, biscuits, crackers, candies, and other oily snacks will decrease exposure to synthetic antioxidants.
How will this news affect my diet? Not at all. I get my TBHQ from breakfast cereals and peanut butter cups. Other snacks, not so much. I am more concerned about oxidized fatty acids than synthetic antioxidants.
Titanium dioxide is in Jell-O, M&Ms, sunscreen, and toothpaste. TiO2 is not just for kids any more! We find it in strawberry daiquiris and in house paint. Why does Big Food add it to stuff going into our mouths? It makes foods, over-the-counter drugs, and cosmetics a brighter white.
Why should we worry? Anything in house paint must be toxic. Right? It appears that the powder is of less concern than when added as nanoparticles. Concerns about titanium dioxide arose from an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) (3). I confess that I did not read the entire 130-page report. I did read its detailed 5-page abstract and summary. The panel of 49 scientists concluded that “Based on all the evidence available, a concern for genotoxicity could not be ruled out, and given the many uncertainties, the Panel concluded that E171[TiO2] can no longer be considered safe when used as a food additive.”
How was this report put together? The EFSA assigned the issue to its Panel on Food Additives and Flavourings. The panel of 49 scientists reviewed the appropriate journal articles. They assessed the potential dangers in several types of toxicity. They questioned the safety of the additive concerning genotoxicity.
Are the fears overblown? Molecules appearing in toxic substances like house paint do not mean it is toxic. We live in a complex world of chemicals. Fresh fruits and vegetables contain many more chemicals than most ultra-processed foods. Like TBHQ, TiO2 has GRAS status. To this point FDA considers it safe. Children consume more of the molecule than adults. They enjoy chewing gum, candies, and brushing their teeth more than adults.
The EFSA report is much more serious than the EWG article. It gets to the heart of the science. It rules out cancer, general toxicity, reproductive function and fertility in rats. Immunotoxicity could be a problem, but the evidence is not enough to cause alarm. The report concludes that chances of absorption of the molecule during digestion is low. Even a small amount ingested could lead to long-term problems, however. It is genotoxicity that raises concerns. What does that even mean? A genotoxin can alter the DNA leading to a mutation. Europeans worry more about such warnings than Americans. They follow the Precautionary Principle. When public health could be at stake, be ultra-conservative. Americans wait longer before taking action. Think instant replay. If the call to this point is safe, we need conclusive evidence to change our minds. The FDA might decide that the call on titanium dioxide ‘Stands.’
Why is it used? Appearance is important in accepting a candy, sunscreen, or toothpaste. Who eats off-white candy that is supposed to be bright white? Will off-white sunscreen keep us as safe as the original? Getting a child to brush their teeth is hard enough. Does the color coming out of the tube affect the experience? Cosmetic use of additives seems superfluous until it comes time to use real products.
What alternatives do we have? From what I understand there is not much around to produce bright white in consumer goods. They could go back to powder instead of nanoparticles. Governmental agencies are unlikely to make that distinction. If banned, manufacturers will rush to produce products with bright, non-white colors. Where do they turn? To approved, artificial colors of course. Natural colors are not as bright and not as stable. Not unless we are talking cochineal.
How will this news affect me? Not that much. I looked around my house for evidence. I only found it in my wife’s 3-D White toothpaste with TiO2 as an inactive ingredient. I live in Florida, but I do not use sunscreen.
Bottom line. Let me state that I am in no way qualified as a toxicologist. I trust the scientific experts in the FDA and their outside advisers to make those calls. Based on reading the original sources I would vote to keep TBHQ in products. I would agree to the suspension of titanium oxide in candies, gum, and other sweet treats whose primary consumers are children. I would leave it in toothpaste, sunscreen, and other cosmetics. We do not want to discourage tooth brushing in children or application of sunscreen. The dangers from oxidized fats appear much greater than anything coming from synthetic antioxidants. Making candies, confectionaries, and chewing gum less appealing to children appeals to me.
I don’t ask you to adopt my point of view. I do expect an open mind. Do your own research and draw your own conclusions. Always question the source of your information.
*Please let me know if you find any popular article using chemical in a positive connotation or molecule in a negative one.
(1) Naidenko, O.V., D. Q. Andrews, A.M. Temkin, T. Stoiber, U.I. Uche, S. Evans, and S. Perron-Gray, 2021. Investigating molecular mechanisms of immunotoxicity and the utility of ToxCast for immunotoxicity screening of chemicals added to food. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 2021, 18, 3332. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18073332
(2) Shewfelt, R.L. and B.A. del Rosario, 2000. The role of lipid peroxidation in storage disorders of fresh fruits and vegetables. HortScience 35 (4): 575.
(3) Younes, M. [47 others] and M. Wright, 2021. Scientific opinion on the safety assessment of titanium dioxide (E171) as a food additive. EFSA Journal 2021;19(5):6585, 130pp. https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2021.6585
Next week: Two journal articles on the dangers of ultra-processed foods