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Food Additives Bha, Bht, and Tbhq: Uses and Concerns

Beverley has a degree in Science and additional certifications in nutrition and aromatherapy. She's published on and offline.

Bha, Bht, and Tbhq are considered antioxidants. They are added to fatty and oily foods because they’re like magnets to oxygen. They draw the atom in and it oxidizes them instead of oxidizing the fats. Butters, cheeses, oils, or foods with those ingredients are preserved. Food spoilage is prevented and shelf life is extended.

The additives are also found in materials and products such as food packaging, medicines, cosmetics, animal feed, petroleum and rubber goods.

The letters Bha, Bht, and Tbhq look and sound similar, at least at first glance. But how different are these synthetic food additives?

Differences Between Bha, Bht, and Tbhq

Bha, Bht, and Tbhq differ in chemical composition, characteristics, historical use, safety protocols, and the potential dangers they may cause to human health.

Butylated hydroxyanisole formula

Butylated hydroxyanisole formula

Bha: Chemical Composition, Characteristics, and Historical Use

Bha refers to butylated hydroxyanisole. It is also called BOA and is trademarked under other names. Its chemical or molecular formula is C11 H16 O2.

It is a solid, waxy, substance, white or yellow in color, with a slight aromatic odor. It is insoluble in water, but soluble in fats, oils, and certain percentages of alcohol.

According to a HuffPost article, Bha was first used as a food additive in 1947.

Butylated hydroxytoluene formula in 3D

Butylated hydroxytoluene formula in 3D

Bht: Chemical Composition, Characteristics, and Historical Use

Bht stands for butylated hydroxytoluene. If you’re a chemistry buff, you’ll appreciate other names like 2,6-Di-tert-butyl-p-cresol and 3,5-Di-tert-butyl-4-hydroxytoluene. It is also sold under a number of trademarked monikers. Its molecular formula is C15 H24 O.

Bht is powdery or crystalline and white to pale yellow in color. It smells like a dank, moldy towel. Like Bha it is insoluble in water, soluble in fats and alcohol, but by different percentages.

Butylated hydroxytoluene was first used as a fatty food additive in 1954.

Tert-butyl hydroquinone formula

Tert-butyl hydroquinone formula

Tbhq: Chemical Composition, Characteristics, and Historical Use

Tbhq pertains to tertiary or tert-butylhydroquinone. Synonyms include 2-tert-butylhydroquinone2-tert-butylbenzene-1,4-diol, and t-Butylhydroquinone. The chemical formula is C10 H14 O2.

Appearance-wise it is a white to pale beige powdery or crystalline substance. It has a faint aromatic odor like Bha. It is insoluble in water, soluble in fats, oils, and alcohol but by different percentages than Bha and Bht.

Tbhq was first used in 1972.

Safety Protocols for Bha, Bht, and Tbhq

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has strict guidelines or regulations that must be followed by the producers of processed foods. Those guidelines usually include the quantity, physical, chemical, and biological properties of the ingredients used in manufacturing.

Producers must employ what is termed “good manufacturing practice” (GMP or current good manufacturing practice/ cGMP). Ingredients and foods should also identify as GRAS: “generally recognized as safe” for human consumption.

How different are the FDA’s safety requirements for the use of Bha, Bht, and Tbhq?

Cheese

Cheese

FDA Requirements for Bha

The FDA specifications for Bha include:

  • Used alone in foods, in combination with Bht, or other food antioxidants.
  • Used as an antioxidant in foods such as dehydrated potatoes, sweet potatoes, dry breakfast cereals, dry fruits, dry mixes for desserts and beverages, emulsion stabilizers for shortenings, and active dry yeast.
  • Testing should reveal no less than 98.5 percent of total Bha in the particular food.
  • Melting point should be no lower than 48 degrees Celsius.
  • Labels should list Bha or butylated hydroxyanisole and any other pertinent information for the additive, depending on food preparation.
Dry cereal

Dry cereal

FDA Requirements for Bht

The FDA specs for Bht include:

  • Used in foods alone, in combination with Bha or other food antioxidants.
  • Used as an antioxidant in foods such as dehydrated potatoes (including chips), sweet potatoes, dry breakfast cereals, preserved meats, and emulsion stabilizers for shortenings.
  • Testing should reveal no less than 99.0 percent of total Bht in the particular food.
  • Labels should list Bht or butylated hydroxytoluene and any other pertinent information for the additive, depending on food preparation.
French Fries, Sloppy Joe, and Bread

French Fries, Sloppy Joe, and Bread

Tbhq FDA Requirements

The FDA requirements for Tbhq include:

  • Used in foods alone, in combination with Bha and/ or Bht.
  • The total antioxidant quantity in foods with Tbhq should not be more than 0.02 percent of the oil and fat content of the particular food, including its essential or volatile oil content.
  • Testing should reveal no less than 99.0 percent of total Tbhq in the particular food.
  • Melting point should be no lower than 126.5 degrees Celsius.
  • Used as an antioxidant in fatty and oily foods and cosmetics.

Potential Dangers

Watchdog groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) see possible dangers such as cancer in consuming Bha, Bht, and Tbhq. What are the other potential health issues? Are they similar?

Sliced ham

Sliced ham

Bha: Potential Health Issues

Research studies imply that Bha may cause:

Bacon

Bacon

Bht: Potential Health Issues

Studies indicate that Bht:

Butter

Butter

Tbhq: Potential Health Issues

Research studies suggest that Tbhq:

Moldy fruit

Moldy fruit

E. coli bacteria

E. coli bacteria

Benefits in Consuming Bha, Bht, and Tbhq

Are there any differences in benefits in consuming butylated hydroxyanisole, butylated hydroxytoluene, and tert-butylhydroquinone?

Very short answer: No.

Besides preventing food spoilage, Bha, Bht, and Tbhq are considered antioxidants. Antioxidants are cited as compounds that prevent cellular damage by removing the harmful oxidative free radicals in cells. Free radicals are responsible for a host of chronic and other diseases.

According to a ResearchGate article on food additives, the oxygen in food encourages the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and fungus. These organisms cause food to spoil. As antioxidant agents, Bha, Bht, and Tbhq gobble up or remove the oxygen which inhibits their growth and protects the food.

Bottom Line

Bha, Bht, and Tbhq are antioxidant additives used by manufacturers to preserve and extend the shelf life of processed foods, especially foods with fats and oils: butter, cheeses, chips, dry breakfast cereals, and soft drinks.

Though the abbreviated letters appear analogous, protect our foods in a similar manner, and may even provide antioxidant benefits, there are a number of differences between Bha, Bht, and Tbhq.

Bha or butylated hydroxyanisole is a waxy, white to light yellow solid with a slightly aromatic scent. Bht or butylated hydroxytoluene appears as white to pale yellow powder or crystals and smells like moldy cloth. Tbhq or tertiary/ tert-butylhydroquinone is a white to pale beige powdery or crystalline substance. The additives are also insoluble in water but soluble in fats, oils, and alcohol in varying degrees.

Additionally, research suggests that these artificial food additives may cause cancer as well as other health issues unique to each:

  • Bha may cause endocrine and female and male sexual organ dysfunction.
  • Bht may cause behavioral issues in kids, asthma, thyroid dysfunction, and may make the liver appear moth-eaten.
  • Tbhq may cause disruption to the immune system and thymus cell function, organ toxicity, red cell membrane damage, neurological issues, and food allergies, especially in children.

The FDA also has different safety guidelines for the use of Bha, Bht, and Tbhq in our foods regarding percentages, melting points, testing, labeling, among other protocols.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2021 Beverley Byer

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