Consumers’ immune systems could be seriously harmed by a food preservative found in almost 1,250 popular foods, according to a new study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). 

The researchers found that numerous processed foods — including Pop-Tarts, Rice Krispies Treats, and Cheez-Its — are made with a preservative called tert-butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ. The chemical is added to prolong the shelf life of food, but studies have found that it could also hamper the effectiveness of flu vaccines and contribute to a rise in food allergies. 

The full list of foods that contain the preservative TBHQ can be viewed here

The researchers came to their conclusions after analyzing data from the Environmental Protection Agency, and their findings are particularly relevant during the pandemic. As consumers strive to defeat COVID-19 through a large-scale vaccination effort, the study authors say more attention needs to be focused on the chemicals commonly used in food and how they might impact efforts to protect consumer health. 

“The pandemic has focused public and scientific attention on environmental factors that can impact the immune system,” said lead author Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., EWG vice president for science investigations. “Before the pandemic, chemicals that may harm the immune system’s defense against infection or cancer did not receive sufficient attention from public health agencies. To protect public health, this must change.”

Legal to add potentially dangerous chemicals to food products

The EWG noted that it’s currently legal for food manufacturers to add potentially harmful chemicals to food since the FDA “frequently allows” food manufacturers to determine which chemicals are safe. The FDA, which approved TBHQ decades ago, “does not consider new science to reassess the safety of food chemicals,” the group said. 

“Food manufacturers have no incentive to change their formulas,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at EWG. “Too often, the FDA allows the food and chemical industry to determine which ingredients are safe for consumption. Our research shows how important it is that the FDA take a second look at these ingredients and test all food chemicals for safety.”

The peer-reviewed study has been published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health