So I decided to do a little research into what this BHT stuff is, especially since my kids are eating it. Turns out that BHT is an abbreviation for butylated hydroxytoluene. As someone who has a profession in the neurosciences, the word that jumped out to me was “toluene” because toluene is a solvent that can cause neurological effects when inhaled. BHT is not toluene, but the fact that it shares a chemical name with it was cause for initial concern.
Additional readings in BHT show that it is used as a component in jet fuel, rubber petroleum products, cosmetics, electrical transformer oil, and embalming fluid (the stuff they put in dead people to replace blood) and preserve the body. Anyone hungry yet?
When food is exposed to oxygen, it can spoil. When BHT is added to foods containing fats and oils, oxygen reacts preferentially with BHT as opposed to the fats and oils, which preserves the food from spoiling as fast. So, BHT is an anti-oxidant, but it is an artificial anti-oxidant.
The key question is whether BHT (or the related BHA) is harmful to human health? It depends on what you read and what your source of information is. Some will say that it is used in such small amounts (parts per million or billion) that it is most likely safe. But to me, this is not very reassuring because if someone said they were going to add a miniscule amount of jet fuel into my cereal, I would say no, not matter how small. Some will say that is an anti-oxidant, has been used to treat herpes and other viruses, and decrease cancer risk. However, others can cite information that it increases cancer risk, at least in laboratory animals given very high doses of the substance.
Tired of reading the conflicting accounts, I turned to the only objective source of information I could think of. Every commercial chemical substance that people can be exposed to needs to have a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) which contains detailed information about the substance, including information on human health effects and toxicity. You can find the MSDS for BHT here and read it for yourself. I particularly focus on this section:
Special Remarks on other Toxic Effects on Humans:
Acute Potential Health Effects: Skin: Causes mild to moderate skin irritation. Eyes: Causes moderate eye irritation. Inhalation: May cause respiratory tract (nose, throat) irritation. Ingestion: May be harmful if swallowed. The clinical manifestations of acute are not well known. May cause gastritis, vomiting, hypermotility, diarrhea. May affect behavior/central nervous system (dizziness, weakness, somnolence, slurred speech, ataxia, visual and auditory hallucinations, headache, confusion, temporary loss of consciousness), respiration (respiratory depression), blood (reduced ability to clot) Chronic Potential Health Effects: Ingestion: Prolonged or repeated ingestion may affect the liver, kidneys, thyroid, adrenal gland, behavior/central nervous system and learning ability, blood (reduced ability to clot), and may cause weight loss. Ingestion or skin contact may also cause allergic reaction (dermatitis, asthma).
Special Remarks on Chronic Effects on Humans:
May affect genetic material (mutagenic). May cause cancer based on animal test data. No human data found. May cause adverse reproductive effects and birth defects (teratogenic).
Chronic Effects on Humans:
CARCINOGENIC EFFECTS: A4 (Not classifiable for human or animal.) by ACGIH, 3 (Not classifiable for human.) by IARC. MUTAGENIC EFFECTS: Mutagenic for mammalian somatic cells. Mutagenic for bacteria and/or yeast. May cause damage to the following organs: blood, liver, central nervous system (CNS).
The bottom line for me is that I personally do not want to consume products that contain BHT or BHA much less feed them to my kids. There are other tasty cereals out there that do not contain this substance, particularly in the organic food section. Some of these natural food products have found ways to use natural preservatives that do not use jet fuel ingredients. Typically, they use what are known as tocopherols -- a technical word for a totally natural substance in vitamin E.