BHA and BHT Keep Foods Fresh, But Are They Safe?

Breakfast cereal often contains BHA and BHT.
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Question: I'm trying to buy healthier foods at the grocery so I want to learn more about the food additives used in processed foods, and I'm not sure about some of the ingredients I see on packaged foods. Like what are BHA and BHT? Are they dangerous or are they safe to consume?


Processed foods make up the bulk of grocery store offerings, and these foods almost always contain some sort of food additives designed to enhance flavor or increase the shelf life of the product.

 BHA and BHT are only two of the food additives you might find listed on the package label, along with all the main ingredients. 

I'm often asked about the food additives used in processed foods, so I totally understand your concern, but rest assured both BHA and BHT have been tested and used safely in our foods for quite a long time.

What Are BHA and BHT?

Processed foods like potato flakes and dry breakfast cereals are usually packaged in air-proof packaging filled with something inert and harmless like nitrogen gas. But once you open the package, the contents are exposed to oxygen in the air. 

Oxygen is good for us, obviously. We need to breathe oxygen constantly to stay alive. But, oxygen isn't such a good thing for processed foods because it reacts to fats and makes them go rancid. Foods with rancid fats taste bad and while a little rancid fat won't hurt you, it's not something you'd want to eat frequently.

Some products get used right away so it doesn't really matter, but it might take you a month or so to go through a box of cereal. You don't want your cereal to sit there and go bad -- it's a waste of money and eating spoiled food isn't a great idea. 

So food manufacturers add butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) to foods like cereal and other dry goods to help the fats stay fresher longer.

Both BHA and BHT are antioxidants, which means they can protect other compounds from the damaging effects of oxygen exposure. In a way, BHA and BHT are similar vitamin E, which are is also an antioxidant (and often used as preservatives as well).

But Are BHA and BHT Safe to Consume?

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers both BHA and BHT to be safe to use in processed foods. 

Researchers who study these things have estimated the amount of BHA that would be present in an average diet and didn't find any problems. Furthermore, scientists have determined it would take a daily consumption of at least 125 times that amount for BHA to become toxic.

Likewise, BHT is also considered to be safe; however consuming unusually large quantities of BHT may have some interactions with hormonal birth control methods or steroid hormones, and may increase levels of liver enzymes. Currently, the FDA allows food manufacturers to use BHT, but additional safety studies are suggested.

So, all in all, I'd say these preservatives are safe to consume, and you certainly don't want to eat foods that have gone rancid.

I think the main thing isn't the preservatives themselves, it's the nutritional value of the processed food you're eating. Since BHT and BHA are used in foods with high fat content, there's a good chance the foods themselves are high in calories and not all that good for you. 


U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS) Opinion: Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)." Accessed May 6, 2016.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS) Opinion: Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)." Accessed May 6, 2016.

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