Love snacks like Cheez-Its, Rice Krispie Treats, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Pop-Tarts? Unfortunately, I’ve got a little bad news. Scientists recently discovered that a common preservative in all four — and in over 1,200 other popular treats — called tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) may actually be weakening your immune system.
TBHQ is a preservative that has been used in food for decades; its only purpose is to extend a product’s shelf life so that it’s easier for vendors to sell and for consumers to keep on hand. (You can see a full list of TBHQ-enriched snack foods here.) Recently, a 2021 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that used animal and non-animal testing confirmed that TBHQ can cause significant damage to cell proteins, making you more susceptible to illness and worsening your symptoms if you get sick.
Earlier studies looking into TBHQ found initial evidence that the preservative was messing with the immune system and potentially even linked it to issues like vaccine efficacy and food allergies. But this latest research is more definitive proof that TBHQ is causing these problems. Moreover, scientists say that food packaging processes often dump additional harmful chemicals into TBHQ-filled snacks, which in turn cause even more damage to your body.
Researchers are particularly concerned about TBHQ’s effects on the immune system given the current Covid crisis and hope that the findings shed more light on common items that may be affecting our health. “The pandemic has focused public and scientific attention on environmental factors that can impact the immune system,” explained Olga Naidenko, PhD, the lead author of the study. “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. To protect public health, this must change.”
So, does this discovery mean that you need to give up any snack food that contains TBHQ forever? While that may be the most obvious solution, it’s not the easiest, and scientists are still piecing together what their recommended daily maximum for is for TBHQ. Many of the items that contain TBHQ are already ones you should eat in moderation anyway (like Dove Chocolate and Totino’s Pizza Rolls), so if you’re mostly sticking to a healthier lifestyle of whole foods with the occasional indulgence, you should be fine. That said, you can also check the packaging of your foods to see if TBHQ is included and avoid them if you can. The preservative isn’t always listed due to loopholes in the manufacturing process, but it’s worth it to at least take a look.
And if you’re concerned about TBHQ or what you eat, it may be time to talk to your doctor, if only to put your worries at ease!