BHT: The Newest Petrochemical in Your Box of Food

by Alexandra TwoSpirit

Ever heard someone say, “This food isn’t fit for my dog, let alone me”? Well, with pet parents and their “furkids” (as we overly-attached owners are wont to refer to our pets), it’s often the reverse. The truth is that we can be pickier about what our animals consume than what we do. It was this exact conviction that had me scanning dog food labels in an attempt to validate manufacturer claims of “natural and wholesome” ingredients. During my hunt for the perfect pet food, I kept seeing three letters that would later became grounds for automatic rejection: an ominous compound known only as “BHT”. But what is this mystery substance, and why is it appearing in dog food all of a sudden?

Now I’m not claiming to be a scientist, but no meat, vegetable, or vitamin supplement fit for pets that I’d ever heard of goes by the abbreviation BHT. And my suspicions are correct — butylated hydroxtoluene (BHT), and its closely related cousin, butylated hydroxanisole (BHA), are antioxidant preservatives created with isobutylene. They help stabilize fats from turning rancid. However, your furry friend’s liver wasn’t created to handle such petrochemicals. BHT & BHA are known to be carcinogenic to dogs, and higher grade pet food manufacturers refuse to use these compounds due to their detrimental effects. Plus, vitamin E preserves fats just as well. I thought my encounter with BHT would end with the shunning of certain dog foods.

Until one day, I noticed that my favorite cereal tasted a little…odd. Since we live in an age where processed food can’t be trusted to be composed of actual food, I scanned the ingredient list to see if something had changed. Imagine my surprise; the same three distasteful letters from the dog food labels had somehow migrated onto the back of my cereal box. With growing dread I discovered that the majority of non-organic cereals contain BHT, ruining the only guilty dessert pleasure I have left in my dieting life. That wasn’t all — cookies contain it, crackers, chips, oil…hell, even sausage has this chemical in it! What on earth is going on? And most importantly, why is this being added to everything in the supermarket?

I found a simple, yet startling answer: much like corn (high fructose corn syrup, anyone?), BHT is a marketer’s wet dream. Parent companies can buy it cheaply by the ton and use it in every branch, for every purpose you can imagine. Check out the websites from Chinese manufacturers:

• “Extends the life of rubber and plastic!”
• “Lard lasts six times longer!”
• “For use in embalming fluid, leather, dairy, and paint!”
• “Stabilizes makeup AND medicine!”

… the lists go on. About the only thing it doesn’t do is fight crime and kiss babies. If it did kiss babies I’d worry about it inevitably poisoning them. The FDA has banned it in baby food since it has been proven carcinogenic in lab animals, and it is linked to hyperactivity in children. Yet somehow, once your infant becomes a toddler, it’s okay to feed them cereals containing BHT?

The FDA webpage on BHT is equally as confusing, citing research from 1973 that comes to a “well, we don’t think anyone has died from it yet, but we really should look further into this” conclusion that isn’t reassuring at all. England, Sweden, Australia, Japan, and Romania have banned its use in human food, period. Other factors that are still “under research” are the bio-accumulative effects of BHT (meaning that it deposits in your organs over time causing damage; remember our furry friend from earlier?), toxic effects on the blood’s ability to coagulate, and a potential issue in that some of the chemical may be passing from our urine into the water supply, helping to “preserve” our local fish and fauna — whether they like it or not.

I understand that in emergencies, extending the life of food has benefits that may outweigh the risks. But using this questionable substance to extend the life of regularly purchased foods that for years were packaged and sold without the use of this compound, and without warning the populace of the potential dangers, again ignores the question: why? Sell me items with BHT as emergency rations, with warnings, for a higher price if you must. Sell me my weekly cereal the same way you did my grandparents, before people had to Google every other ingredient on the list to make sense of things. And if you won’t, don’t cry foul when those of us who actually read our labels buy organic simply to bypass this ugly mess of “wonder” chemicals being added to everything for the sake of corporate convenience…consequences to the community be damned.

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