Views:8 Author:Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. Publish Time: 2021-10-08 Origin:ThoughtCo.
Chemistry of BHA and BHT Food Preservatives
By Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.
Updated July 30, 2019
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and the related compound butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are phenolic compounds that are often added to foods to preserve fats and oils and keep them from becoming rancid. They are added to food, cosmetics, and packing of products that contain fats to maintain nutrient levels, color, flavor, and odor. BHT is also sold as a dietary supplement for use as an antioxidant. The chemicals are found in an extensive list of products, yet there is concern about their safety. Take a look at the chemical properties of these molecules, how they work, and why their use is controversial.
BHA is a mixture of the isomers 3-tert-butyl-4-hydroxyanisole and 2-tert-butyl-4-hydroxyanisole. Also known as BOA, tert-butyl-4-hydroxyanisole, (1,1-dimethylethyl)-4-methoxyphenol, tert-butyl-4-methoxyphenol, antioxyne B, and under various trade names
Molecular formula C11H16O2
White or yellowish waxy solid
Faint characteristic aromatic odor
Also known as 3,5-di-tert-butyl-4-hydroxytoluene; methyl-di-tert-butyl phenol; 2,6-di-tert-butyl-para-cresol
Molecular formula C15H24O
How Do They Preserve Food?
BHA and BHT are antioxidants. Oxygen reacts preferentially with BHA or BHT rather than oxidizing fats or oils, thereby protecting them from spoilage. In addition to being oxidizable, BHA and BHT are fat-soluble. Both molecules are incompatible with ferric salts. In addition to preserving foods, BHA and BHT are also used to preserve fats and oils in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
What Foods Contain BHA and BHT?
BHA is generally used to keep fats from becoming rancid. It is also used as a yeast de-foaming agent. BHA is found in butter, meats, cereals, chewing gum, baked goods, snack foods, dehydrated potatoes, and beer. It is also found in animal feed, food packaging, cosmetics, rubber products, and petroleum products.
BHT also prevents oxidative rancidity of fats. It is used to preserve food odor, color, and flavor. Many packaging materials incorporate BHT. It is also added directly to shortening, cereals, and other foods containing fats and oils.
Are BHA and BHT Safe?
Both BHA and BHT have undergone the additive application and review process required by the US Food and Drug Administration. However, the same chemical properties which make BHA and BHT excellent preservatives may also be implicated in health effects. The research leads to conflicting conclusions. The oxidative characteristics and/or metabolites of BHA and BHT may contribute to carcinogenicity or tumorigenicity; however, the same reactions may combat oxidative stress and help detoxify carcinogens. Some studies indicate low doses of BHA are toxic to cells, while higher doses may be protective, while other studies yield exactly the opposite results.
There is evidence that certain persons may have difficulty metabolizing BHA and BHT, resulting in health and behavior changes. Yet, BHA and BHT may have antiviral and antimicrobial activities. Research is underway concerning the use of BHT in the treatment of herpes simplex and AIDS.