Butylated hydroxyanisole is a preservative and antioxidant that is added to a huge number of foods and products we use on a daily basis. It can be found in butter, margarine, meats, breakfast cereals, baked goods, beer, cake mixes, vegetable oils, shortening, potato chips, nuts, and chewing gum. Sometimes food processors will incorporate BHA into the packaging materials to “preserve freshness.” It can also be found in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and rubber.

BHA is a controversial food ingredient because it is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” according to the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Report on Carcinogens. Because it has yet to join the list of “known human carcinogens,” it is still “GRAS” (generally recognized as being safe), and can therefore be found throughout the food system.

BHA’s cousin, Butylated hydroxytoluene, is found in enriched rice and many of the same foods that contain BHA. A review of the safety of BHT, published in the International Journal of Toxicology, highlighted that BHT can have opposite effects depending on the animal model, amount of exposure, and organ targeted. In other words, it sometimes promotes tumor development, and at other times acts as an anticarcinogen.

In addition to their carcinogenic effects, both BHT and BHA are also linked to hyperactivity. This first came to the forefront in the 1970s when Ben Feingold, a pediatric allergist, developed the Feingold Diet, a diet which eliminates synthetic colours, flavours, preservatives like BHT and BHA, and artificial sweeteners to treat and prevent hyperactivity. The Feingold Program and similar diets continue to be tested for their ability to improve ADHD symptoms. Over the past 40 years, studies have consistently shown a link between hyperactivity and certain food additives.

Though they are still considered safe, it is likely only a matter of time before BHA and BHT join the list of hundreds of other compounds that should never have entered our food in the first place.