Researchers Warn: Preservative Used in Hundreds of Popular Foods May Harm the Immune System

Human Organs Illustration

 Environmental Working Group’s analysis of Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxicity Forecaster data found that the preservative TBHQ harms the immune system in both animal and high-throughput in vitro toxicology tests.

New science suggests the FDA should test all food chemicals for safety.

A food preservative used to prolong the shelf life of Pop-Tarts, Rice Krispies Treats, Cheez-Its, and almost 1,250 other popular processed foods may harm the immune system, according to a new peer-reviewed study by Environmental Working Group.

For the study, published this week in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, EWG researchers used data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxicity Forecaster, or ToxCast, to assess the health hazards of the most common chemicals added to food, as well as the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, which can migrate to food from packaging.

EWG’s analysis of ToxCast data showed that the preservative tert-butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, has been found to harm the immune system in both animal tests and non-animal tests known as high-throughput in vitro toxicology testing. This finding is of particular concern during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The pandemic has focused public and scientific attention on environmental factors that can impact the immune system,” said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., EWG vice president for science investigations and lead author of the new 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.”


TBHQ is a preservative that is pervasive in processed foods. It has been used in foods for many decades and serves no function besides increasing a product’s shelf life. Using new non-animal test results from ToxCast, EWG found that TBHQ affected immune cell proteins at doses similar to those that cause harm in traditional studies. Earlier studies have found that TBHQ might influence how well flu vaccines work and may be linked to a rise in food allergies.


Using ToxCast, EWG analyzed all publicly available studies that show how PFAS migrate to food from packaging materials or processing equipment. This is the first known compilation of available research on PFAS migration from packaging to food. In 2017, nationwide tests showed that many fast-food chains used food wrappers, bags, and boxes coated with highly fluorinated chemicals.

Human epidemiological studies show that PFAS suppresses immune function and decreases vaccine efficacy. Recently published research has also found a link between high levels of PFAS in the blood and the severity of COVID-19.

Surprisingly, for most PFAS, the ToxCast results did not match previous animal and human test data. This illustrates the limitations of this new chemical testing method. More research is needed to understand how PFAS harm the immune system.

Food Chemicals Regulation

The Food and Drug Administration’s approach to the regulation of food additives does not consider the latest science on the health harms of additives that may be legally added to processed foods manufactured in the U.S. Last year, EWG published Food Additives State of the Science, which highlighted additives known to increase the risk of cancer, harm the nervous system and disrupt the body’s hormonal balance.

Chemicals linked to health harms can be legally added to packaged foods because the FDA frequently allows food manufacturers to determine which chemicals are safe. Additives like TBHQ were approved by the FDA decades ago, and the agency does not consider new science to reassess the safety of food chemicals.

“Food manufacturers have no incentive to change their formulas,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at EWG. “Too often, the FDA allows the food and chemical industry to determine which ingredients are safe for consumption. Our research shows how important it is that the FDA take a second look at these ingredients and test all food chemicals for safety.”

Less Toxic Food Preservatives

Processed foods can be made without these potentially harmful ingredients, so shoppers should read labels carefully. TBHQ is often, though not always, listed on the ingredient label. It will be listed if it has been added to the product during manufacturing. But it can also be used in food packaging, particularly plastic packaging, in which case it may migrate to food.

EWG’s Food Scores database helps consumers find products made with healthier alternatives, and our Healthy Living app allows shoppers to scan products while in stores to choose a better option.

EWG recommends that immunotoxicity testing be prioritized for chemicals in food and food contact materials in order to protect public health from their potential harm to the immune system.

EWG also calls on the FDA to close the regulatory loophole that allows potentially unsafe food additives to remain on the market. The FDA should also promptly review additives like TBHQ to reflect new science.

Reference: “Investigating Molecular Mechanisms of Immunotoxicity and the Utility of ToxCast for Immunotoxicity Screening of Chemicals Added to Food” by Olga V. Naidenko, David Q. Andrews, Alexis M. Temkin, Tasha Stoiber, Uloma Igara Uche, Sydney Evans and Sean Perrone-Gray, 24 March 2021, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
DOI: 10.3390/ijerph18073332

26 Comments on "Researchers Warn: Preservative Used in Hundreds of Popular Foods May Harm the Immune System"

  1. TBHQ (a Phenolic [containing Phenol] Antioxidant) and the class of additives known as PFAS (Per/Polyfloroalkyl) have been known since the mid-1980s to be hazardous to humans, and to be persistent organic pollutants in the environment. The effects of both substances are cumulative. TBHQ carries a GHS WARNING classification. PFAS compounds carry a GHS DANGER classification. The other dangerous additives: METHYLCHLOROISOTHIAZOLINONE (MCI) [say that FAST 10 times] and METHYLISOTHIAZOLINONE (MI) can be found in shampoo and conditioner [often combined under the name KATHON], and have recently been approved as food additives. They are classified as a BIOCIDES [and potential MUTAGENS] and carry a GHS DANGER classification. There are 31 HAZARD and PRECAUTIONARY statements associated with these substances. Their presence in the environment is also cumulative.

    The Chapter and Verse for these 3 additive substances is far too “voluminous” to represent here. It’s worth a read. You might want to think about it, next time you draw a glass of water from the tap, shampoo and condition your hair or give one of your children a cereal bar.

  2. who would have guessed big wigs have no regard for peoples’ health? time to wheel out the guillotine.

  3. The more we stray from food in it’s natural state, the more issues with food we have. Preservatives have their place. But we need to use them sparingly. Almost everything is made from a byproduct of petroleum. In my opinion there will come a time when we realize that plastic and patroleum will be like lead was to ancient Rome. Cheap and easy to work with, but at a fatile cost to our and the world’s health.

  4. Duhhh

  5. I am glad to see this research published. Backs up things I have said to colleagues, friends and family. I will share this article far and wide.

  6. Everything you need to eatting will lead to damages no further than health care system for human rights to protect the privacy to feed the thing are rights reserved way take longer to make it happen or you will be need longer bigger factory to breed them to get your amounts of food and other things required less toxic. Do no harm in making

  7. Clyde Spencer | March 26, 2021 at 6:52 am | Reply

    This seems to be another example of “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t!” There have been articles here decrying the waste of food, much of it from spoilage. If we cut back on, or eliminate preservatives, then we can expect food wastage to increase, with complaints about the impact on the environment, producing food that gets wasted.

    The obvious solution is to find preservatives that don’t have undesirable side-effects. However, how probable is that when the purpose of preservatives is to kill bacteria and fungi that degrade food? There was a recent article that cautioned about eating “processed” meats; curing retards spoilage. Even simple salt has issues!

    For those of you jumping on the band wagon of the evils of preservatives, what do you suggest?

    • Donna Harding | March 26, 2021 at 7:52 am | Reply

      The obvious solution is to reduce the need for preservatives. Our food production requires preservatives because of the time and distance between the creation and distribution of the food. If food production became limited and local again, preservatives of this type would not be needed. But this would require us to have conversations that we collectively don’t want to have; such as, conversations about large-scale agri-business and its multiple negative impacts on the Earth. We would have to talk about why people think all foods should be available all year long instead of some things being available only seasonally. I’m old enough to remember waiting for spring and summer because that’s when certain fruits would come back to stores. Now, I can get tasteless watermelon all year long and mangoes in December. I’m not trying to pick on you personally. Lots of people share your same view of this problem. But at some point, the health consequences to humans and the deadly consequences to our food supply (and the Earth) will force us to have these conversations.

      • Donna

        I’m not feeling picked on. Yours is the kind of response I was looking for.

        However, have you thought about the consequences of your suggestion? Basically, to put people closer to the food supply would require de-urbanization. That would mean less land to grow crops and graze animals to accommodate housing and infrastructure for the people. Then, places where range cattle can be raised won’t support much else in the way of food because it is semi-arid and the soils are thin. We could do without cattle, as vegans suggest, but then what would the land be used for if not to raise food? California supplies the US with much, if not most, of the vegetables and fruit that the rest of the nation eats because of the climate and fertile soils. Attempting to grow lettuce, cauliflower, artichokes, etc. might be feasible elsewhere, but with less ideal growing conditions, and only one crop per year, the total food produced would be less.

        Truck drivers, warehouse operators, and the infrastructure supporting those activities would become unemployed. You are basically suggesting a re-structuring of the economy and demographics of the country, the opposite of what China has recently done. Conversation or not, do you think that most people would accept that with open arms?

  8. If the FDA worked for you they wouldn’t still be giving everything you loved the real cause of AIDS and Cancer.

  9. Our FDA allows poisonous carcinogens in our food supply….a toxic preservative that harms the immune system pales in comparison. This is the same FDA who says these experimental covid vaccines are safe by the way….

  10. No wonder why everything taste like plastic

  11. … and most of those stuff added to a food we by in a stores are just packed with not needed stuff, sometimes it is a load of stuff to make meat look more red…

  12. Just wait till the rollout of 5g is complete,cases of people with diagnosed with cancer going from diagnosis to death rapidly will increase dramatically as the signal will exacerbate any underlying condition or activates a dormant one for some that signal will be like pouring salt on a snail it will just break down the natural force that a person has and without that cancer and every other ill forming thing has a green card to do what it does unchecked eyesight will begin to fail prematurely rapidly so will mental stability as the signal just blows thru the electrical connections that make up our conscious so often and with such force that the brain stops repairing itself or stops seeing the need to, life is a fragile thing,and the damage list goes on and on, is 5g the end if the world? Of course not,not in any way shape or form but as with many of the things we create it certainly means an ending for some a lot of people are not made for such a silent blast continually,but what is that 150,000 people die world wide daily so it really doesn’t matter and never will…the only time it matters is if it matters to us enough to have care and concern about one another to not make things to hurt one another, we make our own monsters, it simply doesn’t matter this is the brutal and honest truth…there will be no saviour to come and save us after the Earth has been driven beyond the brink no space ship to come and take us anywhere and certainly none from here for we are like crabs in a bucket and the destruction is within us, it is inevitable that we would do the exact same thing to any other planet we were put no it does not matter at all what happens and it never will so many men have come and died it is beyond counting, it won’t matter untill WE decided it does and that’s a long long long time off, I use to attend a middle school as a child called Alice Deal and they use to hand out a school hand book and in it at a critical part it stated that the “I” is a turn off, essentially saying that to be soley concerned about ones self to the disregarding of others is unacceptable social behavior and should not be tolerated, I have never seen that in any other school hand book…ever, and children are our future.

  13. Jep – I agree with you 100%. I wish more people would see what you (and I) see as obvious. The FDA is controlled by Big Agri and Big Pharma, imo.

  14. Calvin J Cheney | March 28, 2021 at 8:59 am | Reply

    Is it intentional? Who benefits?

  15. Calvin J Cheney | March 28, 2021 at 9:01 am | Reply

    Refuse to participate in corporate greed that fills store shelves with unhealthy choices & markets to manipulate society’s choices. Through protocols in education, finance, insurance & medical corners, manipulation of informed consent & critical thought exacerbate unhealthy choices that fill the coffers of those who benefit, completing the circle. Rather than participating & giving over our power to this corrupted system, if we don’t cooperate they have no power over us~

  16. Wow must be true now

  17. All these toxic food cause diseases anyway what else what else is new? 🤔

  18. It’s sickening, but not surprising.
    The fact that the FDA lets those who market the products decide what’s safe is similiar to letting the NRA write gun control laws.
    Which they have.
    Laws that have been around since they recommended smoking for pregnant women, might not be best for people.
    And knowledge (in these cases) means very little when it’s health vs. Big Agra or Big Pharma, because health is not their product and it’s not in the manifesto. Profit is their goal and they’ll go to great lengths to deal a death blow to anything that interferes with that. This has been proven many times already.
    There’s a lot we Could do, if we got together & fought legally, but that’s not likely in 2021 when we’re trying to get thru Covid (some more, some much less). Meanwhile, we can make some changes for ourselves & loved ones & hope it’s not too late.

  19. Everything we eat has poison chemicals in it even salad, All talk about foods but know one mentions Monsanto and the pesticide they spray even organic foods has recalls, at the end it’s the people to choice wisely what you put in your body.

  20. It’s never a coincidence that poisons show up in times of hunger and need… disease and illness is big business..racks in billions of $$$$$$$$$$$$$ for the FDA Big Pharma the government the who cdc billy & fauci the jab manufactures…etc etc etc.
    Now that folks are stocking up on shelf stable foods….Those foods now have life threatening chemicals discovered🤣😅🤣😅😅😅😅😅😅😅😅🤣😅🤣😅🤣😅🤣😅🤣
    We believe this just fell out of the sky…today Bull sh*t!!!!!!

  21. Ricardo Ragazzone | April 5, 2021 at 1:07 pm | Reply

    Why we die

  22. Deborah L Garcia | April 12, 2021 at 1:33 pm | Reply

    I learned 30 years ago I was sensitive to food additives and perservatives. Immediately after consuming such a store bought bakery items, processed snacks or frozen dinner entres I would get a response – sometimes a stuffed up nose, or a headache or sinus congestion or even a queasy feeling in my stomach. I learned to stay away from those items and buy very very little packaged or prepared foods. I am also sensitive to a myriad of environmental chemicals. I guess its my body warning me. Yes there are chemicals in everything, fortunately I know what chemicals to qvoid.

  23. There are other food additives that the EWG does not ever mention. I back them and understand why. They can only take on so many big industry giants at one time. The FFA has mandated that Folic Acid be added to our foods since 1998. It is a petroleum product, not natural and causes as much as %60 of our population problems. If someone needs to supplement their diet they should take a methylalized folate or try and get more natural folate into their diet. If you are worried about food spoilage by organic, and only store your food in glass, ceramic and food grade silicone. After three years I have really noticed that getting rid of BPA and BPS plastic has changed the storage life of my fresh and frozen food. Good for the environment and better for my health.

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