Common food preservative may hamper immune system activity

March 31, 2021

New research that examined data from ToxCast, the Environmental Protection Agency’s toxicity screening database, is raising questions over the safety of a commonly used food preservative known as tert-butylhydroquinone (tBHQ) or E319. The compound is suspected to disrupt immune functions, although both the United States and European health authorities deem the additive safe in low concentrations.

Public health researchers are calling for greater surveillance of the immunological effects of food additives, especially those that may harm the immune system’s defense against infection or cancer, as with tBHQ.

According to Scott Faber, from the Environmental Working Group – a non-profit organisation sponsoring the new research – the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not re-evaluate previously approved food additives when new science becomes available, while food manufacturers have no incentive to change their formulas.

“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.”

The study suggested the ToxCast data, which is based on animal* and mechanistic studies, reveals a number of signs tBHQ influences immune activity. Further investigation needs to be done to better understand how this compound affects human immune parameters, including “defense against infection, anti-tumour immune responses, and autoimmune reactivity.”

[*An animal study published in 2019 found mice raised on a diet with tBHQ displayed impaired immune responses to influenza infections.]

“From the public policy perspective, the discovery of impacts on human health of substances that have long been used in consumer products and food products suggests that the pre-market safety evaluation of these substances was inadequate,” the researchers concluded. “We recommend that immunotoxicity testing should be prioritised in order to protect public health, and immunotoxicity analysis should be, in our estimate, an integral part of chemical safety assessment.”

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