When you’re shopping for cereal, you might assume everything for sale has been regulated and proven safe to eat. But that’s not always true. In fact, popular brands, including Cap’n Crunch and Apple Jacks, contain food additives that may be harmful to your health.
Processed foods like cereals, snacks and many other items frequently contain these additives, many of which have never been meaningfully reviewed for potential adverse impacts on human health. Or the safety of certain additives hasn’t been reviewed again in decades, with the newest science in mind. Yet some additives may be harmful to your health.
Food additives are included in products for a variety of reasons: to add color or shine, to stabilize artificial flavors and to extend shelf life. More than 10,000 food additives are allowed for use in food sold in the U.S.
Butylated hydroxyanisole, or BHA, and butylated hydroxytoluene, or BHT, are two such additives that continue to be allowed in the food we eat. BHA and BHT have been shown to cause hormone disruption and harm the reproductive system. BHA is classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization.
BHT is added to cereal – including Cap’n Crunch and Apple Jacks - to prolong shelf life. BHA is commonly found in preserved meats such as pepperoni and sausage.
BHA is classified as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the National Toxicology Program. It’s listed as a known carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65 and categorized as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
The European Union classifies BHA as an endocrine disruptor because of its ability to lower testosterone and thyroid-hormone thyroxin.
Rat studies found BHA can harm sperm quality in males and cause a decrease in uterine weight in females. BHA can also cause hormone disruption and immune system changes. Other studies also show it can be harmful. But under the Food and Drug Administration’s outdated generally recognized as safe, or GRAS, loophole – intended to allow ingredients to skip regulatory approval only if they’re known to be safe – manufacturers and the FDA assert that BHA is safe.
BHT may disrupt endocrine function by causing thyroid changes and affecting animal development, according to the European Food Safety Authority. Studies on rats fed BHT found they developed liver and lung tumors.
Like BHA, BHT is considered a GRAS additive by the FDA, in contrast to research showing its risk to human health.
What you can do
Check labels and avoid products that list BHA and BHT as ingredients
Food manufacturers are required to label BHA and BHT as additives on their products. If you see either listed on a product, avoid it.
Urge the FDA to take action
Join us in calling on the FDA to take a second look at the safety of BHA and BHT.
It’s also time for the FDA to close the GRAS loophole to prevent new additives from being added to food without government oversight. Send a tweet urging the FDA to take this step, using the hashtag #ToxicFreeFoodFDA.
Avoid ultraprocessed foods
Avoid ultraprocessed foods whenever possible. Many contain other concerning ingredients, not just BHA and BHT. Some companies don’t even have to label their additives.
Choose organic when possible
Organic processed foods are formulated in compliance with strict standards and don’t contain many of the food additives associated with negative health effects; including BHA and BHT.
Our most recent peer-reviewed study thoroughly explores the differences between organic and non-organic processed foods.
This article was updated Tuesday, February 22, 2022.