The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a report a year ago stating that a widely used food preservative could cause cancer in humans yet the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an agency within the health department, is still allowing it to be added to foods such as breakfast cereals, packaged snacks and chewing gum.
The preservative, Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA), is added to a number of commonly consumed packaged foods to prevent a change in color, flavor or texture. In a report released in October 2014, the Department of Health stated that BHA could be a carcinogen in humans, having caused cancer in experimental animals such as rats, mice and fish. The FDA, a subdivision of the health department, still lists BHA on its Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) Substances database, allowing food corporations to use the additive in foods.
Denise Young, vice president of corporate affairs for the popular candy manufacturer, Wrigley, said her company adds BHA to some of its chewing gum products to prevent oxidation.
“We take any concern about any ingredient in our products seriously but first and foremost we look at the science, and science dictates there is not a health concern,” said Young.
Wrigley remains one of the many companies still using BHA. But in the past year, other food corporations began announcing the removal of this additive. Panera Bread, for example, released a statement in May listing BHA as one of the artificial additives it promised to remove from its ingredients by the end of 2016.
“It’s inexcusable after all these years that the FDA allows BHA in food and has not done more definitive studies,” said Lisa Lefferts, who studies food additives as a senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Lefferts said that many food additives, such as Green #1 and Red #1 – two food colorings – have been banned as a result of studies conducted by governmental agencies. She said she finds it “crazy” that BHA has not also been banned, especially because the health department is a parent organization of the FDA.
An FDA spokeswoman, Marianna Naum, said the agency’s experts have looked at data from scientific studies and determined BHA does not pose a risk to human health.
In an email, Naum wrote, “The valid scientific interpretation of results from animal studies is complex and dependent upon many factors.”
She said these factors include the design and length of a given study, the types of animals tested and the amount of BHA exposed to the animals.
“Often such studies are very limited in duration, limited in numbers or types of test animals and include exposure routes and levels largely variant from exposures of humans from the human food supply,” wrote Naum.
In another email, Naum wrote, “FDA is not aware of any evidence demonstrating that the permitted uses of BHA in food are not safe.”
Later, she clarified, “FDA was already aware of the studies cited in the report.”
Naum declined to answer follow-up questions over the phone.
Lefferts countered that many defendants of BHA dismiss the results of scientific studies by arguing that animal anatomies are different than the human body.
“Some say we shouldn’t have to worry that BHA caused cancer in the fore-stomachs of rodents because people don’t have fore-stomachs,” said Lefferts. “Not having a fore-stomach doesn’t mean that people are immune. BHA caused liver cancer in fish – we have a liver.”
“To put it in perspective, I don’t want to alarm people,” added Lefferts. “BHA is probably posing a small risk of cancer over a lifetime. Eating one bag of chips with BHA doesn’t mean you’re going to get cancer. But when you take a small risk and you multiply it out by all the people in the U.S., it’s possible that some people might get cancer because of cancer-causing additives like BHA.”
As safer alternatives to BHA do exist, such as Vitamin E or nitrogen packaging, Lefferts said she does not understand why the FDA still allows the preservative, adding, “They should require better studies that would resolve the issue one way or another.”