In the U.S., the rate of food allergies increased a worrying 50 percent between 1997 and 2011 alone, and is now estimated to affect 1 in 13 children under 18 years old. Many of these allergies can be potentially deadly — and yet researchers have been stumped when it comes to finding the cause for what has become an epidemic throughout the modern world.
In the past, there have been a few main explanations for the rise in allergies and intolerances, including the presence of GMOs in the food supply (a claim found likely to be unfounded by a recent massive study on the safety of GMOs) and the so-called “hygiene hypothesis.” Now, one researcher from Michigan State University, Cheryl Rockwell, is pointing the blame at a common food additive that may cause some people’s immune systems to go haywire.
An assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the College of Human Medicine, Rockwell has spent the past nine years documenting a possible link between food allergies and the synthetic food additive tert-butylhydroquinone, or tBHQ.
Approved by the FDA in 1972, tBHQ is widely used as a preservative in many common foods, including cooking oil, nuts, crackers, waffles and bread. Despite its widespread use in the food industry, you’ve probably never heard of it, because companies aren’t required to list it on the ingredients label. Until now, it’s been accepted as harmless to humans, but Rockwell’s research indicates that it may actually be responsible for mobilizing the part of the immune system that causes allergic reactions.
When BHQ is consumed, Rockwell found that it causes the body’s T cells to release proteins called cytokines. Normally these proteins are released in order to fight invading bacteria and viruses, heal inflammation, and destroy cancer cells. But in the presence of tBH, the T cells begin to mobilize the body’s defenses against a different “invader” — the food that has just been consumed.
There’s more research to be done on tBHQ, but the FDA needs to reevaluate what it considers to be a “safe” additive. While small amounts of the preservative may not be poisonous, the fact that its expanding use in food products coincides with a rise in food allergies and severe reactions should be enough to give the agency pause. This is just one of many food additives approved by the FDA that’s having its safety brought into question in recent years.
However, Rockwell believes that tBHG is only the tip of the iceberg. Her new research focuses on uncovering chemicals that trigger the same signal pathway in the body, potentially leading people to develop allergies. Cadmium and lead are two of the many substances she’s currently testing to uncover a connection.