Take a quick look into your refrigerator or kitchen cupboards, and grab something random off of one of the shelves. Ignore, for a moment, the fresh fruits and vegetables which should be taking pride of place in your kitchen. Just grab something common and right to hand, say a box of cereal, loaf of bread, or even some butter or yoghurt. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Found something? Good. Now take a look at the list of ingredients. Anything there you find troublesome? Because you should. In all likelihood, whatever you have grabbed from your kitchen shelf has a long list of ingredients, many of which you need a PhD in biochemistry to recognize. One of these is BHA, a chemical used as a preservative in many prepackaged foods. If you don’t know what BHA is, and food manufacturers hope you don’t, it’s time to get brought up to speed on this hazardous food additive.

What is BHA and Why is it in Your Food?

BHA, or to give it its full name butylated hydroxyanisole, is a petroleum based chemical additive that is commonly used in the manufacture of prepackaged foods, cosmetics and over the counter medicines. It is used primarily as a preservative, retarding the natural oxidization of oils in order to prevent organic based products from spoiling or going rancid. Manufactures use BHA to give their products a longer shelf life, as well as a more uniform color and texture. BHA can be found in everything from lipsticks to aspirin; from yoghurt to canned peaches. But there is a problem with BHA, and it is a big one. BHA is a confirmed carcinogen, and it has been directly linked with an increased risk of developing cancer.

BHA and Cancer

BHA is a fat soluble chemical, that when ingested is broken down by the body. Ultimately, everything we ingest will have either a positive, or negative effect on our health. In the case of BHA, the effect appears to be a negative one. While scientists and food manufacturers assert that BHA is safe, ongoing research is proving otherwise. Recent ongoing studies into the effects of BHA are showing a verifiable link between prolonged exposure to this chemical additive and cancers of the stomach, liver, and kidneys. These same studies are also demonstrating a definite link between BHA exposure and irreversible damage to the thyroid gland.

BHA, the FDA, and the Rest of the World

In the United States, the FDA has classed BHA as “generally recognized as safe.” Hardly a ringing endorsement. Moreover, because the FDA has classed BHA as “generally recognized as safe”, it has not had to undergo a pre-market review. Subsequent independent reviews have supported the FDA’s claims, with the caveat that uncertainties still exist and further research is required. But other countries recognize the danger that BHA presents and have banned its use as a food additive. Japan, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have all taken steps to ban the use of BHA. Surely, these countries wouldn’t ban BHA unless it was deemed hazardous to the health of their citizens.

Avoiding BHA

Unfortunately, BHA is so commonly used by American manufacturers that it is hard to avoid. As we have seen it is in everything from breakfast cereal to cosmetics. That being said, there are steps you can take to limit your exposure. All foods containing BHA must be clearly labeled, and as a consumer you should make it a point to read the labels of products you are purchasing. Avoid those products that list BHA as an ingredient, and beware of general labels that list things like “other preservatives” or “preservatives add for extra freshness”. In general, foods containing BHA are not healthy choices in and of themselves, so avoiding these should be easy. Second, whenever possible choose fresh organic fruits and vegetables. Look for minimally processed foods that are clearly labeled as “free from additives”. For the most part, these are healthier choices anyway and should be a growing part of your health and nutrition strategy.

BHA may be an uncommonly common food additive in the US, but that doesn’t mean that you have to expose yourself to it. While the FDA may refuse to acknowledge the harmful effects of BHA, as consumers we can take steps to limit our exposure and protect the health of ourselves and our families. Buy certified organic products whenever possible and remember the more ingredients on a label that you cannot pronounce or that looks like chemical, they usually have a negative effect on your overall health.