Allergies and Food Additives

Common food additive may be linked to rise in food allergies

Food allergies can be a nuisance or a life-threatening issue. New research indicates the possibility of a surprising link.

Cheryl Rockwell, PhD, has been studying a common food additive she thinks may be linked to food allergies. The Michigan State University professor has been studying the synthetic food additive tert-butylhydroquinone, or tBHQ, for nine years.

Dr. Rockwell is an assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University.

The additive tBHQ is an antioxidant, which is added to foods to help keep them fresher longer. It was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1972 and is commonly used in foods like cooking oil, nuts, crackers, breads and waffles. The additive may not be listed on the label so consumers might not necessarily realize it’s there.

Increasing use of tBHQ has paralleled a rise in food allergies in the US. But why?

T cells are a part of the immune system that help fight infections. Under normal conditions, T cells release compounds called cytokines that help fight off invaders like bacteria. Dr. Rockwell’s research indicated tBHQ affects T cells to releases a particular set of cytokines. These cytokines can trigger allergies to foods such as eggs, milk, nuts, wheat and shellfish.

“I think of the immune system as a military force,” Dr. Rockwell said in a press release. “Its job is to protect the body from pathogens, such as viruses. The T cells are the generals. The T cells stopped acting as soldiers in the defense against pathogens and started causing allergies. What we’re trying to find out now is why the T cells are behaving this way.”

Dr. Rockwell recently received an Outstanding New Environmental Scientist, or ONES, award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. In addition to the award, she received a $1.5 million five-year grant to support her research.

With the additional financial support, Dr. Rockwell plans to continue her study of tBHQ and may also look at other chemicals like lead and cadmium that may have similar effects.




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