In a recent study, scientists found that commonly-used chemical additives added to processed foods can have toxic effects on the immune system, contributing to conditions such as chronic inflammation, hypersensitivity, and autoimmune disorders. The study found that these immunotoxic substances cause the body to produce fewer antibodies, leaving it more susceptible to infection.
One of these preservatives,tert-Butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, is present in around 1,250 processed foods including microwave popcorn, cheese crackers, frozen pizzas, chocolate bars, and breakfast foods.
These food additives were approved by the FDA decades ago. Because of this, food manufacturers are not required to undergo updated testing to understand how these chemicals impact consumers.
To get answers, the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, performed a “ToxCast” study—a lab-based assay that studies the potentially toxic effects of chemical agents on living cells or biological molecules without the need for animal testing.
“The pandemic has focused public and scientific attention on environmental factors that can impact the immune system. 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,” said Dr. Olga Naidenko, speaking to the urgent need for such research.
Naidenko’s team studied 63 food additives in various products sold in the U.S. from 2018 to 2020. They also took a closer look at nine chemicals known to leach into foods from their packaging. The researchers analyzed how these substances affected the activity of immune proteins involved in inflammation and immune responses against pathogens.
The ToxCast data indicated that TBHQ had strong immunotoxic effects. However, for the other compounds such as the food colorant FD&C Red 3 and the PFOA found in packaging, follow-up studies are required to understand the true nature of their impact on cells and tissues. Here, ToxCast data contradicted prior studies performed in animals and humans which found that these compounds did have immunosuppressive effects.
The researchers are calling for the FDA’s standard safety assessments to be refreshed for the health and safety of the public.
“Food manufacturers have no incentive to change their formulas. Too often, the FDA [allow] the food and chemical industry to determine which ingredients are safe for consumption,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the EWG.
“Our research shows how important it is that the FDA take a second look at these ingredients and test all food chemicals for safety.”