Common Additive May Be Responsible For Increase in Food Allergies: Study

A commonly used preservative found in industrially prepared products may be responsible for the rise of food allergies, according to the findings of new research. 

In a press release issued by Michigan State University on July 11, by Cheryl Rockwell, an assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the College of Human Medicine indicates that a study determined that the food preservative tert-butylhydroquinone (tBHQ) may cause the body’s immune system to release an abnormal set of proteins that triggers allergies to certain foods.

Rockwell’s research has been focused on finding a reason for the increasing number of food allergy cases throughout the U.S. population. More than nine years of research and laboratory models led Rockwell to conclude that when the synthetic food preservative tBHQ is presented in the human body, T cells released an abnormal set of cytokines known to cause allergies to foods such as nuts, milk, eggs, wheat and shellfish.

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Typically, the immune system’s T cells release proteins called cytokines that help fight off bacterium. However, in the presence of tBHQ, the T cells released proteins that acted in an opposite fashion and enabled food allergens. Rockwell’s trials throughout the study pinpointed that T cells behaved differently in the presence of tBHQ.

tBHQ is a synthetic food preservative that was approved by the FDA in 1972 and was permitted to be used in food items at the maximum level of 0.02%. Due to the additive’s limited amounts in food items it is not commonly listed on food labels, making it difficult for consumers to identify.

Some studies have been done on the human body’s exposure to tBHQ at high doses, with some finding the preservative to be carcinogenic in large amounts, causing stomach tumors and genetic damage.

Rockwell’s research could be groundbreaking, if researchers can definitively pinpoint the ingredient and more than likely many others that may cause T cells to produce food allergy enabling proteins. According to the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), upward of 15 million Americans have food allergies and the disease affects approximately one in every thirteen children. FARE reports that the total economic cost of treating food allergies is nearly $25 billion per year.

Rockwell was awarded the Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) award earlier this year by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for discoveries found in her research. She has been given a $1.5 million, five year grant that will allow her to further research the matter. Rockwell stated in her continuing research she will be study signaling pathways she has identified in cells that appears to play a role in causing food allergens when tBHQ is present, as well as other potential triggering chemicals such as lead and cadmium.


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