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French Fries, Instant Noodles Have TBHQ, and That's Bad For You

Jul 18, 2016 12:04 PM EDT

McDonald's chicken nuggets and french fries, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Kellogg's Pop Tarts, many varieties of instant ramen - these are just some of the popular food products that contain traces of a butane derivative called TBHQ, according to a number of sources. Even though this food preservative may be present in safe amounts in what we eat, a diet that features regular consumption of TBHQ-laced products may heighten one's risk of developing food allergies.

This conclusion comes from a Michigan State University (MSU) researcher named Cheryl Rockwell, who is a recipient of the 2016 Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIEHS News reports. The award includes a grant that she will use to "study how the food additive tert-butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, promotes allergies, in order to identify similar environmental chemicals that may affect the immune system."

That furthers the continuation of a project that began nine years back, notes MSU Today. An assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology, Rockwell has learned through her research that TBHQ incites a response from the body's T cells - which are key defensive agents of our immune system. The detection of TBHQ provokes the T cells into releasing a certain type of cytokine (a cell-signaling protein) which is known to trigger allergies to some foods.

"The T cells stopped acting as soldiers in the defense against pathogens and started causing allergies," Rockwell explains. "What we're trying to find out now is why the T cells are behaving this way." The cellular response can induce allergies to foods such as wheat, milk, eggs, nuts and shellfish.

Rockwell plans to use the ONES grant to investigate a cell signaling pathway that may be causing the food allergies to emerge in response to TBHQ. She speculates that quite a number of other chemicals, including lead and cadmium, also tickle that same signaling pathway.

The Food and Drug Administration has set a safe limit for the presence of THBQ at up to 0.02 percent of the total oil contained in food. THBQ is commonly used as a cooking oil preservative, which is how it gets into french fries.

The level of THBQ in a typical serving of fries is too miniscule to do one harm. Although if you're eating large amounts of fries everyday, you are likely to trigger the food allergy-causing pathway. Of course, if you're eating that much, you probably don't care a lot about living a healthy lifestyle.

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