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On Nutrition Labels, what is BHT?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is a food additive used as a preservative, and when it appears on food labels, it indicates that the manufacturer is concerned about the potential for the food to go rancid. It is also used as a preservative in a number of other things, ranging from cosmetics to jet fuel. The substance was developed in the late 1940s and approved for use in the 1950s.

This substance is an antioxidant, preventing oxidation damage to fats. When foods that are high in fat are not treated with preservatives, the fats can go rancid very quickly, causing them to taste bad and potentially creating health risks for consumers. By using preservatives, manufacturers can ensure that their foods are shelf-stable longer, and that their flavors will be retained. Essentially, BHT intercepts free radicals, preventing them from attacking the fats.

BHT often appears in things like potato chips, which tend to be high in fat, along with baked goods and a wide variety of other foods. In cosmetics and other products, it works in the same way, protecting the fats in the product from damage that could cause the product to separate or go bad in other ways. In some instances, a related substance known as butylated hydrooxyanisole (BHA) may be used instead. BHA began displacing BHT in the 1970s, due to concerns about its health risks.

In pure form, this substance is a crystalline white power. It is highly fat soluble, allowing manufacturers to mix it into food as it is produced so that consumers will not notice the appearance or flavor. Like other food additives, it must be identified on a label; shoppers may also see it identified as E321 in the European Union, which uses a system of numbers to mark various food additives.

The health risks of this food additive are a topic of debate, and further research is clearly needed. Some studies have linked BHT with an increase in tumors and malignant cancers, while others have suggested that it may help to protect the body from free radicals which cause other cancers. It also seems to have some antimicrobial and antiviral activities, and it has been used in medical research for treating conditions like herpes. The US Food and Drug Administration still considers BHT to be safe, although consumers who wish to avoid it may want to check their labels carefully.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon1000367 — On Sep 06, 2018

anon42557 as long as you are not allergic to sunflower seeds I highly sagest you eat lots of them. They really help to prevent head aches I heard some where its because of the magnesium in them but who knows I am just happy it works. Helps make blood vessels strong or something.

By anon991386 — On Jun 17, 2015

BHT is an "antioxidant"? Funny. It's poison!

By anon272027 — On May 29, 2012

The human body is great at filtering out stuff that's bad for us. But we need to use our heads and not overload the system. Moderate and you will be fine.

By anon209013 — On Aug 24, 2011

Avoid BHA,(and BHT). The US Department of Health, in it twelfth Annual Report on carcinogens, 2011, pg. 78, 79, lists it GRAS, while reporting studies 1986, 1990, showing cancer found in fish-- liver, and forestomach in three different animals: mice, rats, hamsters. If it's got either, you don't need it. Look for fresher and additive free alternatives. Why be a corporate guinea pig?

By anon165507 — On Apr 05, 2011

People need to understand something about chemical additives: when going to get a chemical approved, there's far more money available in showing they are "safe" to use than showing they are unsafe after they have been approved. If a company stands to profit from the sale of a chemical they'll dump tons of research dollars into it. The same effort is not used to confirm the reports of possible problems associated with it after it's been approved. There is no motivation to do so.

BHT does not need to be in cereal. Children eat this junk all the time and their cells grow and turn over faster than adults. What may be a potential problem for a developing child is often far less a problem for an adult. That's not considered enough in these things.

What it comes down to is cost. It's cheap and easy to work with. Some manufacturers use Vitamin E and other natural antioxidants and they work fine. BHT is an anti-oxidant. If you removed the oxygen from the packaging you need less antioxidants. Duh! Include a small, non-toxic, oxygen-absorbing pack like they sell for those interested in food storage for the home.

And as for our government and the FDA. Trust if you will. After all they have never been wrong, right? Get real! Seriously! Believe what they say and trust them if it makes you feel safer and you sleep better at night. Educate and trust yourself if you want to actually be safer. People seem to think the FDA actually tests this stuff. They don't. I worked in pharmaceuticals, and the FDA just reads the reports and studies provided by manufacturers and draws their conclusions largely from these reports which cover "short term" research. Add to that the simple fact that the FDA barely has enough staff and funding to do anything except rubber stamp approve things. And yes, big business and the chemical manufacturers do have lobbyists that work closely with our government and yes, it does slant the political decisions their way or they would not spend millions and millions on the system.

You only need to watch the current political landscape to see that in action. Take a close look at who funds the Republican Party largely and you will see it's big business, big oil, big pharma and the Chambers of Commerce. Don't think for a minute these organizations care for anything but their bottom line and the dividends they can give their investors. They don't care for you. They just care for your wallet. So if you care about things like preservatives in your food, follow the money and make your voting decisions based on it.

By anon162356 — On Mar 23, 2011

The "T" in BHT stands for Toluene, an extremely strong solvent commonly used to get old, dirty paintbrushes sparkling clean.

By anon157662 — On Mar 03, 2011

BHT has been banned in Europe for many years due to safety issues. It's considered to be a cancer causing agent. It's time for America to catch up with the rest of the world!

By anon149267 — On Feb 03, 2011

BHT, BHA, TBQA has made my life a living hell! Just a small amount of anything containing this poison and I am in bed with a migraine! For the longest while it was only in my cereal, but now it is in everything from cereal to body lotion to mascara! Our bodies are absorbing this chemical like crazy. Our government says that it is safe in small doses, but I don't think they understand that it is in almost everything we come in contact with. It makes eating anything other than organic or purchasing shampoo a real feat!

I think the person that thinks this is actually good for you, must have gotten their letters mixed up. It is purely a poison! R

By anon146099 — On Jan 25, 2011

#28, I commend you on how diligent you are in avoiding certain foods for the simple reason that you have "heard [that they] could be linked to several serious diseases". But there are nuts, extremists, conspiracy theorists, and self-pro-claimed experts out there who have their own theories (also potentially out for a quick buck) that spew misinformation not backed by science. Perhaps you should stop reading and listening though. You are certain to starve.

By anon139694 — On Jan 05, 2011

Any CEO can figure out that if BHT extends shelf life and they can add more to extend shelf life then the five year stock option bonus will be higher and what happens to the people 20 years from now is none of our concern, just as long as i make sure my own kids don't eat the stuff.

By anon139499 — On Jan 04, 2011

this was helpful for a science fair project of mine, but I'm unsure whether to say that it is harmful or harmless. if you ask me, it is both. In one thing, it may be harmful, but in another, it may be harmless. Start looking at the glass half empty and instead look at it as half full.

By anon124355 — On Nov 05, 2010

Just a word "on the behalf" of preservatives like BHT. In an ideal world we could all grow our own food and eat it fresh daily with time to spare for commencing with other aspects of our lives. Unfortunately, this isn't an ideal world and unless you are a professional farmer, this simply is not possible.

While the benefits of preservatives like BHT are known, and I'll explain them further, any proof of the negative effects of these preservatives is inconclusive at best (not saying they don't exist, but rather that we haven't done enough research to resolve all the allegations against preservatives).

The Benefits: Food goes bad (rancid) because polyunsaturated fats, which are present in both plants and animals, react with oxygen over a fairly short period of time to create free radicals. Free radicals are definitely carcinogenic. BHT works by inhibiting this process by reacting with these radicals to form a MUCH more stable radical.

BHT works in this way much like Vitamin E and other antioxidants in the body work, and it's in this way that BHT preserves food for a much longer period of time.

Basically, not using preservatives would mean a huge waste of food and much higher food costs and more food shortages under our current social framework. Also, unless food is very fresh, it's definitely better to have preservatives added versus not.

I personally try to limit my intake of preservatives as there are still some unknowns, however as a full time medical student, time and money simply don't allow me to buy/harvest my own super-fresh food.

By anon122263 — On Oct 27, 2010

Every morning for the past ten or fifteen years i have cereal for breakfast that contains bht. Lately i have have been having weird feelings in my head. Hard to explain only know it's different. The feeling is brief but happens quite often.

By anon122173 — On Oct 27, 2010

Do not discount BHT or any preservative similar to formaldehyde. I have had migraines for over thirty years and finally made the connection when I was using a patch (for muscle pain and soreness) and realized that every time I applied the patch which had BHT listed as one of the inactive ingredients in the adhesive of the patch I did get a migraine.

It was absorbed through the skin just like the active ingredient, menthol, was for the soreness. I have to avoid BHT, BHA, diazolidinyl urea, toulene and DMDM hydantoin to be able to avoid getting a migraine. It's a challenge because these preservatives are not only in food, but in millions of cosmetics as well.

By anon121738 — On Oct 25, 2010

To Answer post number #25: First of all, those big companies who make all the package food have plenty of money to have homemade cereal, fresh from their back yards and do not even have to go to the super marker for it.

The people who eat the food thinking that nothing is wrong with it, just because big shot people with lots of money in their pocket say so? Well then I guess you may do that, but you need to think for yourself.

I know that the government has been part of many, many conspiracies against people. After all, it will take some time of eating boxes of cereals before one starts developing some kind of weird effect.

For me, all I need to hear is that it could be a link to several serious diseases for me to look elsewhere for something else to eat that will not increase my chances of death and if it is not manufactured, even better.

Remember, manufactures are there to make money, not to feel sorry for the people who buy their product.

By anon119875 — On Oct 19, 2010

don't you get it? Our government benefits from our being "sick." the prescription drug companies make almost $300 billion a year off us. It is a way to ensure a constant flow of money. the sicker we are, the more money they make.

By anon116915 — On Oct 08, 2010

I have been fighting hives for about four months now. I have struggled to find out what is causing them. I don't know if it is for this reason, but I have maintained a strict diet for three days, cutting wheat, corn, and dairy, mainly just eating black beans and rice.

Last night I wanted something different. So, I shopped and shopped for something I could eat. I found a cereal that only had rice products and BHT. I ate it. This morning I had some hives. I had been hive free for seven days. I did have a steroid shot that was supposed to last for five days. It could be the shot wearing off, but it had been two days after the shot should have worn off.

I am going to avoid BHT just in case. Then if I remain hive free for a couple of weeks, I will eat this cereal again. If I break out, I will know it is the BHT. I will let you all know the results.

By anon113741 — On Sep 25, 2010

concerning a comment below: you think you got a migraine from BHT? I seriously doubt it. It's got to be from stress and other external factors.

If this was really going to kill us all, I don't think we'd have this in our food. I mean, the people who make the rules have to eat the same food and I don't think they'd want something toxic in it.

And like someone else said, we pretty much cannot avoid everything toxic/bad for us. It surrounds us; we might as well build up our immune systems.

By anon104364 — On Aug 16, 2010

It's also in gum.

By anon97701 — On Jul 20, 2010

BHT is only one chemical to worry about, when in fact, there are so many chemicals in our food chain, including organic products. MSG is another and they create dozens of names to simply hide the msg in the food.

I don't trust the FDA, plus this government is run on oil companies, drug companies, etc. It's a very deadly cycle. Who can we trust? You will never know what is really in your food.

I recently have changed my diet. I'm going to eat raw foods and high fiber. I'm trying to cut out products that have forms of MSG in them, but who can really afford to stay completely away from unsafe and chemical induced food products? Plus we all use household chemicals and household products.

Everything has something bad in it for you. You can help your own health by knocking out the harmful chemicals, but the overall deal is, we cannot run away from it all, it's sad to say. Big companies run america, not our own so-called government.

Good luck in changing anything you find harmful in your lives. Try to live healthy in any way you can. I guess a little bit will help, but trust me, we are completely in a toxic world.

By anon89851 — On Jun 12, 2010

I was going to buy walnuts when I read the ingredients and it said walnuts and BHT the almonds next to it only read almonds. Just thought interesting and have no idea what to believe.

By anon87233 — On May 28, 2010

The fact that it is being debated is enough for consumer to be skeptical!

Cancer and related illness did not made a big way in human history until the 20th century, when more and more chemical substances became part of our food.

By anon87180 — On May 28, 2010

I just wondered if there was any risk if I were to use a hair shampoo containing BHT as it only comes in contact with hair (the product is hair one).

By anon86532 — On May 25, 2010

That's funny. I am sitting here enjoying some nice almonds as I read the "nut" comment, pardon the pun, so I looked on the label, no BHT, no preservatives at all. In fact, they actually say "All Natural" if you can imagine. They seem to do fine without the use of preservatives. In fact, they are quite delicious!

Good rule of thumb though, avoid BHT and BHA if not for what they are, but for the crap they are keeping from going rancid.

By anon83345 — On May 10, 2010

regarding the post about walnuts having BHT, nuts are high in fat. Without the preservative your precious nuts would go bad before you ate them. Plus everyone who is freaked out about BHT -- it has been in everything since the 50's and has been scrutinized over and over, and even if it's not specifically labeled on a package, it may still be in anything you eat.

Is it really something to worry about when there are people starving in the world? (sorry I had to say that!)

By anon76958 — On Apr 12, 2010

Concerning anon42557 with the medical condition that prevents you from eating all the artificial crap, preservatives, sweeteners, etc? That's no medical condition. It's called your innate genetic intelligence. Your body is saving your life by not allowing you to eat those things. To call it a medical condition is to say you have a medical condition that doesn't allow you smoke crack.

By anon68931 — On Mar 05, 2010

How do these things get approved if there is such a debate on it?

By anon64296 — On Feb 06, 2010

BHT is a harmless antioxidant. Period. It is not the BHT in those appalling pre-packaged pseudo-foods that should concern consumers but the wretched, artificial garbage that these foods really are.

That is the source of all these cancers and other malignancies and of course epidemic obesity today. Look in your cupboards and see what you really eat.

By anon62313 — On Jan 26, 2010

BHT is a harmless food preservative. It is a strong antioxidant that preserves by providing free electrons thus scavenging free radicals. Many people take this safely as a supplement, greatly reducing herpes flare ups. Turns out it is actually good for you.

By anon62203 — On Jan 25, 2010

Watch the movie Food Inc.

By anon58055 — On Dec 29, 2009

No way. I would not want to eat it, nor my family either. I do not have herpes and this harmful substance BHT could damage my brain, lung, heart and liver. I am not willing to risk my life or die from eating this. Some people do not have insurance or are as lucky to see the doctor as well as others.

By anon51012 — On Nov 02, 2009

I heard that BHT has formaldehyde. Is that true?

By anon50499 — On Oct 29, 2009

I just noticed that the Diamond brand walnut halves on my shelf are treated with BHT to preserve freshness. Such a pure, raw food and they have to go and ruin it with BHT. I'll be buying my walnuts from the health food cooperative from now on, thank you very much.

By anon45663 — On Sep 18, 2009

I think it is so sad that they are putting BHT and BHA in our children's cereal. I pray that they would have a change of heart and decide that people are more precious than money. They will still do well financially. So please decide to help our children stay well. Thank you and may you be abundantly blessed if you decide to make the change.

By anon45052 — On Sep 13, 2009

I have had three migraines in ten days and am already on an anti-histamine diet, to prevent migraines. Two out of the three days I have eaten a bran cereal that contains BHT. I finally read the ingredients of the major brand name cereal and there it was, number five on the list. Thank you for your information.

By anon42557 — On Aug 21, 2009

I had never heard of BHT before tonight. I have a medical condition which prevents me from eating any artificial colors, artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners, nitrites, nitrates, or citric acid which is also used for a preservative in foods. I decided not to buy the food with BHT and google it first. I am glad I did. Almost everything has something on my can not eat list. It is very helpful to have these resources. Thank you very much.

By anon40872 — On Aug 11, 2009

If BHT is so harmful, how can our government allow companies to slowly poison us? who can we trust? Just got a box of cereal that only had 2 ingredients until I read they used BHT for packaging. As I read your article I panicked so I am returning the product. I am very grateful for your information, thank you.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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