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Food additive may be cause of many allergies, researchers say

The FDA-approved additive tert-Butylhydroquinone is used to prevent food spoilage, but expanded use could be causing increasing levels of food allergies.

By Stephen Feller
A food additive used to keep foods such as nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, fish and meat from spoiling may also be causing the uptick in significant food allergies in recent years, researchers at Michigan State University report. Photo by Evan Lorne/Shutterstock
A food additive used to keep foods such as nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, fish and meat from spoiling may also be causing the uptick in significant food allergies in recent years, researchers at Michigan State University report. Photo by Evan Lorne/Shutterstock

EAST LANSING, Mich., July 14 (UPI) -- A food additive used to prevent spoilage may be to blame for some food allergies, according to recent research.

The synthetic additive tert-Butylhydroquinone, or tBHQ, was shown in experiments with lab mice to affect the immune system and induce allergies, Michigan State University researcher Cheryl Rockwell reports.

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved tBHQ to prevent spoilage in foods in 1972, limiting it to concentrations of 0.02 percent, for use in oils, fats and meat products, among others, but it is often not listed on food labels because the amount used is so small.

Concerns that the chemical may increase risk for several types of cancer have been rebutted in studies, and a 1986 study found the chemical to be harmless to humans at approved exposure levels.

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Rockwell, an assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the College of Human Medicine, said expanded use of the chemical in recent years may be to blame for the increase in food allergies over the same period, based on research at MSU showing mice given tBHQ exhibited allergic reactions.

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Normally, T cells release proteins called cytokines to help fight off pathogens, but when the mice were given tBHQ in the lab, T cells released another type of cytokine thought to trigger allergies.

"What we're trying to find out now is why the T cells are behaving this way," Rockwell said in a press release.

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Rockwell received a $1.5 million dollar award as part of a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences grant program to continue the research.

In addition to investigating a signaling pathway in cells that may play help cause allergies in the presence of tBHQ, Rockwell said researchers hope to identify other chemicals linked to allergies and the same signaling pathway -- including lead and cadmium.

"We think there could be quite a few," she said.

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