320 BHA and other antioxidants


Synthetic antioxidants
Where to find synthetic antioxidants


Hidden antioxidants
The 5% labelling loophole
Mislabelling is rife
Additive health warnings for medication

Reader reports
Use of synthetic antioxidants around the world
How to avoid BHA and other synthetic antioxidants

Antioxidants to avoid
Safe alternatives

The science
Scientific references
Further information

Keywords: antioxidants, BHA, labelling loophole, unlisted



Synthetic antioxidants

Most people think antioxidants are beneficial, and this is true for antioxidants such as Vitamin C and Vitamin E. However, there are two groups of synthetic antioxidants that can cause nasty side effects: gallates and synthetic antioxidants tBHQ, BHA and BHT. These additives are used in prevent rancidity in fats and oils.

Synthetic antioxidants are widely eaten yet usually overlooked. A small number of consumers react to a single dose, but it is more likely that effects will build up from small doses eaten nearly every day. These additives can be associated with the full range of food intolerance reactions such as irritability, restlessness and difficulty falling asleep; mood swings, anxiety, depression, panic attacks; inattention, difficulty concentrating or debilitating fatigue; eczema, urticaria, contact dermatitis (from cosmetics etc) and other itchy skin rashes; reflux, sneaky poos, bloating, abdominal pain, stomach aches and other irritable bowel symptoms including constipation; headaches or migraines; frequent colds, flu, bronchitis, tonsillitis, sinusitis; stuffy or runny nose, throat clearing, cough or asthma; joint pain and arthritis.

Where to find synthetic antioxidants

Check the ingredients of your pantry and refrigerator. Look at your cooking oil, margarine, 'healthy' dairy blend or low fat reduced spread. Then look for products that contain fats and oils and you will start to understand the size of the problem. Any food that contains fats or oils may contain these antioxidants and they are not necessarily labelled. Eat these products every day and you will never know what has affected you. Nearly every processed food contains some kind of fat or oil: mayonnaise, salad dressing, dips, crackers, biscuits, bread, baked goods, croissants, potato crisps, snack foods, packet meals, unlabelled fried food and takeaways such as hot chips and French fries. Nasty antioxidants are also used in shampoos, cosmetics, lipsticks and other personal care products.


Hidden antioxidants

It doesn't matter whether the ingredient label says vegetable oil, or an oil such as canola or sunflower, fats of vegetable origin, or beef tallow - unless some of the safe alternatives are listed, the product is likely to contain a nasty antioxidant.

Synthetic antioxidants are the most hidden of all additives. There are five ways consumers can be misled.manufacturer fails to list ingredient on the product label

  • ingredient is unlisted under the 5% labelling loophole (see below)
  • consumer hotline gives wrong information when contacted
  • staff give incorrect information regarding unlabelled food, eg takeaways
  • consumer assumes unlabelled food in fast food restaurants or takeways is safe

See examples of each situation in reader reports below.

The 5% labelling loophole

Consumers are often caught unlisted antioxidants under the 5% labelling loophole. This states that if the amount of an ingredient (such as vegetable oil) in a product (such as bread) forms less than 5% of the product, a food additive (such as antioxidant BHA 320) in that ingredient does not have to be listed if the additive is no longer "performing a technological function". In 2006 the Food Intolerance Network formally requested a change in this legislation with regard to synthetic antioxidants. Despite numerous supporting submissions, we were forced to withdraw the review when FSANZ said they would reject it until we could 'prove' that these antioxidants actually affect people – presumably with a multi-million dollar double-blind placebo-controlled trial, see details.

From our point of view, we shouldn't have to prove that people are affected. Consumers should be able to see whether these additives are in their foods or not.

Mislabelling is rife

When a Food Intolerance Network member phoned the manufacturer about Signature Range frozen oven fries (ingredients list says: potatoes, canola oil, salt) she was told firmly there were no antioxidants in the oil. She couldn't understand why her 3 year old son was failing to improve on the elimination diet and seemed to be reacting to their product. Two weeks later the company admitted that their product did contain unlisted BHA under the 5% loophole.

In the same month, another Food Intolerance Network member phoned Goodman Fielder about Gold n Canola oil when she noticed that previously listed tocopherols had disappeared from the label. The consumer hotline officer advised her firmly that tocopherols had been replaced by TBHQ. Another member separately received the same advice. When we pointed out that TBHQ was not listed on the label, the company changed its tune and explained equally firmly that there were no antioxidants in the oil, eventually explaining they had been confused by TBHQ in the New Zealand product. Can we believe them? The wellbeing of our kids depends on word of mouth from people like this. – readers from WA, NSW and VIC.

 Additive health warnings for medication

In Europe, antioxidants BHA (E320) and BHT (E321) have been identified as a possible cause of local skin reactions, for example, contact dermatitis. When these additives are used in medications, the following health warning must appear on the package leaflet: 'May cause mild irritation to the skin, eyes and mucous membranes'.

(See European Commission Volume 3B Guidelines: excipients in the label and package leaflet of medicinal products for human use July 2003.)

 Reader reports

Reports provided by Food Intolerance Network members concerning nasty antioxidants. These reports have been edited for brevity and to maintain anonymity.

[1057] 319, 320: Antioxidants and chronic fatigue (May 2011)

In 1995 I gradually developed CFS and was invalided out of work a year later. In late 1999 I began the RPAH elimination diet. Ten days later my brain fog and fatigue were greatly diminished. Challenges confirmed intolerance to dairy and gluten – which I had eliminated years previously – and indicated intolerances to salicylates, amines and glutamates.

In the following years I had a few relapses, usually lasting for no longer than a couple of weeks. The exception was a six months relapse, which ceased five days after I decreased my intake of vegetable oil and changed from canola to sunflower. (Both oils had no additives listed on the label)

In January 2007 I was feeling quite well and had no significant CFS relapse for a couple of years. At the beginning of February my energy plummeted. I needed to spend at least twelve hours a day lying down, instead of eight hours. Physical fatigue and brain fog returned in force. Six weeks later I bounced back, and was quite well for a few weeks, then I plummeted again. These irregular fluctuations continued throughout the year, but the highs got lower and the lows got lower. I became much more sensitive to amines.

In early February 2008 I went to Woolworths for grocery shopping. I picked up a bottle of sunflower oil and glanced automatically at the contents. In a way, I was not really looking because I 'knew' that nobody put additives into sunflower oil in Australia. But there it was: 'Sunflower Oil, Antioxidants E319, E320'. I squeezed my eyes tight, reopened them, and read the same thing. Then I grinned and imagined myself leaping into the air and clicking my heels. Yes!

I phoned Woolworths and was told that their sunflower oil had E319 and E320 since the beginning of 2007. But sometimes my wife bought sunflower oil from Coles. No, Coles had never put antioxidants into their sunflower oil. We take about six weeks to consume a one litre bottle of sunflower oil. I looked back in my diary and found that the length of my ups and downs were in multiples of six weeks. We swapped to Coles sunflower oil. Eighteen days later I was fully well again. – Ian, by email

[1056] 320: Chronic Tic Disorder due to antioxidants in unlabelled hot chips (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

My three boys have been avoiding a number of additives for many years now because of obvious affects on their behaviour and health. Last year my oldest son (then 8 years old) was diagnosed with Chronic Tic Disorder (one step before Tourettes Syndrome). He could not sit still, having tics in his face, neck, shoulders and arms. After a period of time, I realised that this behaviour coincided with an increase in eating hot chips. I stopped my son eating hot chips and THE TICS WENT AWAY. I have since tried him on hot chips and the same thing happens. The culprit ingredient/s here is the synthetic antioxidant 320 (and/or 319) that appears in most chips and oil used for deep frying, however manufacturers of frozen chips, and other products such as packet chips/crisps and dry biscuits do not need to list the additive on the label if the oil is less than 5% of the product. NOT GOOD ENOUGH! How can I help my son be tic free if we don t know when these nasty additives are in certain foods? – by email, Vic

[1055] 320: Winning entry in the "Worst additive competition" (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

In my opinion the worst food additives are those in the range of antioxidants 310-312 and 319-321 "The Nasty Antioxidants". As antioxidants are not considered to be preservatives (by regulators), and the suppliers/manufactures are not required to list these on the label, they are the most frustrating additives by far. At least with colours, you can readily see them and hence avoid them. Same with most other additives, they are usually on the labels in some sort of description. But the good old nasty antioxidants are secret unless you go to extreme lengths to ask the supplier of the food and then the manufacturer of the contents eg. vegetable oil what exactly are in their oils.

There are alternatives to the nasty antioxidants which are failsafe and haven't been associated with cancer in rats and possible genetic changes and also nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium and collapse, children's behaviour just to name a few.

Even 'safe' foods like 'natural' ice cream cones can't be trusted. They change their oils on a regular basis and also the use of antioxidants from friendly ones (300-309) to nasty ones (310-321). I only found this out after my son experienced an ADVERSE REACTION to these cones and I telephoned the supplier and was told that they had changed their oil and it included BHA (320) & tBHQ (319).

What hope have we got for our children and ourselves if such nasty things are HIDDEN in our foods? I would just love for my son to be able to tolerate eating the occasional fish 'n chips on a Friday night just like I used to when I was a child. Is that so much to ask for? – mother from Victoria.

[1054] 320: From a health promotion dietitian (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

The labelling issue for antioxidants in oil ... is one that ticks me right off I have to say. I know the labelling laws have improved things a lot but to have to call the company before you eat a product is crazy. – dietitian from Australia.

[1053] 320: Mislabelling by a major food company (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

Six months ago our daughter developed severe behavioural problems, including depression, lack of motivation, poor sleeping habits, lethargy and loss of enthusiasm. These were very uncharacteristic of a hard-working fulltime student and a complete puzzle to her concerned teachers. As a consequence, her exam results declined, as did her study performance.

Her problems were eventually traced to her consumption of home-baked products containing Dairysoft, a butter-oil blend manufactured by one of Australia's largest companies, the Murray Goulburn Co-Operative Ltd.

Our daughter is known to be affected by antioxidants 310-312 and 319-321 and several other food additives. Before she started using Dairysoft, verbal advice was obtained from Murray Goulburn that there were no antioxidants in the oil which comprised 22% of the product.

After months of increasing problems, we contacted Murray Goulburn again and were now that informed that the canola oil in the product did in fact contain 320, Butylated Hydroxyanisole.

Our daughter removed Dairysoft from her diet and she has since made a complete recovery, although there can be no compensation for the six months of pain and uncertainty which she suffered. Following complaints, Murray Goulburn have now correctly labeled this product, although without any food recall, product safety or public apology notice. – parents from Darwin.

[1052] 320: BHA in food packaging (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

About a month after being home from the hospital [for severe salicylate-sensitive asthma], I was wanting something to snack on and thought that I could eat the rice krispies type cereal, dry, as a crunchy snack. Interestingly, the first salicylate list they gave me had BHT/BHA and tartrazine listed on it. But I never looked at the label on the cereal. I just assumed that cereals were ok. Within 30 minutes of eating the rice krispies, I was wheezing, had hives, was itching and eyes swelled. Wasn't a super bad reaction, but bad enough to have to use medicines for it. We thought, this certainly couldn't be the cereal but it was the only thing that I had consumed different that day. When we looked at the label on the box, it said that the packaging had BHT in it. I couldn't figure out why they would put it in the packaging when it was the cereal they were trying to preserve!! But I did react and being that it wasn't quite as bad as most of my reactions are, I figured that the BHT from the packaging was enough to get into the cereal and give me that reaction. But just to be certain that it wasn't the malt I was reacting to that was in the cereal, we went to the health food store and bought some plain, rice krispies with just the rice and sugar, no preservatives, no fruit juices, etc...and I didn't react. From that moment on, I tried to make sure that I didn't ingest BHT or BHA. – reader from USA.

[1051] 320: Unnecessary diet restriction due to BHA (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

When my daughter was about four, she required Ventolin whenever she ate bread and so she ended up wheat free. The only time she has had asthma since last year was during the antioxidant (BHA, 320) challenge. You were right about the wheat - it is no trouble whatsoever. We realise now that our daughter was wheat free unnecessarily for years. – reader from NZ

[1050] 320: Unlisted BHA under the 5% loophole and told me the wrong thing (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

My 3 year old's behaviour improved on the elimination diet at first but then he started getting worse and went back to what he was like before the diet - screaming fits, teary, really temperamental, waking at night. He was eating frozen oven fries every night but when I phoned the manufacturer (ingredients: potatoes, canola oil, salt) they told me there were no antioxidants in the oil. Two weeks later the company admitted that their product did contain unlisted BHA under the 5% loophole. – reader from WA

[1049] 319: Consumer hotlines not always right (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

A Food Intolerance Network member phoned Goodman Fielder about Gold n Canola oil when she noticed that previously listed tocopherols had disappeared from the label. The consumer hotline officer advised her firmly that tocopherols had been replaced by TBHQ. Another member separately received the same advice. When we pointed out that TBHQ was not listed on the label, the company changed its tune and explained equally firmly that there were no antioxidants in the oil, eventually explaining they had been confused by TBHQ in the New Zealand product. Can we believe them? The wellbeing of our kids depends on word of mouth from people like this. – by Sue Dengate and thanks to readers from NSW and VIC.

[1048] 320: Failure to improve on elimination diet due to unlisted BHA (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

In my study on the effect of the bread preservative on children's behaviour, we asked 27 children to follow a strict elimination diet (additive free, low in salicylates, amines and flavour enhancers) before starting double blind challenges. Only two of the children failed to improve on the diet within the first ten days. When I looked closely at their diet diaries, I noticed that both were eating large quantities of a particular Arnott's biscuit so I called the manufacturer. It turned out that the biscuits contained vegetable oil with unlabelled BHA under the 5% labelling loophole. As soon as the children stopped eating these biscuits, their behaviour improved as much as the others. – Sue Dengate (Arnotts started using oil free of nasty antioxidants throughout their entire range soon after this)]

[1047] 320: Itchy and grumpy from BHA 320 in pappadums (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

Just discovered - too late! - that Patak's plain pappadums (ingredients: lentil flour, rice flour, salt, vegetable oil, raising agent: sodium bicarbonate) contain unlisted BHA 320 in the oil. Very itchy and grumpy! – reader from SA

[1046] 319: Four weeks of hell from 319 (TBHQ) in gluten free bread (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

Our six year old son is intolerant to many preservatives, colours, flavours, gluten, dairy and food chemicals. Unless we control what we feed him on his very restricted diet, he reacts behaviourally and cannot learn at school or go forward in his treatment by his paediatrician.

Earlier this year, we were giving our son a gluten free bread mix which states on the packet, "preservative free". We had reason to trust this product because it was listed on the 'safe shopping guide' issued by the Australian Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, supplied by our dietitian.

This product was wonderful with it being so versatile in producing pancakes, bread, crumpets, wraps and pizza bases all from this one mix. Our son was able to enjoy more variety without feeling deprived. Once I increased the dose of this product for our son, i.e. pancakes for breakfast, French toast for lunch and a wrap for after school, within a day he displayed explosive behaviour and was unreasonable.

We did not suspect foods as it was listed as safe and the company was a reputable company.

We rang our paediatrician who advised us to cut down on his supplement. After a week there was no change, even at school our son's teacher was noticing a big difference in behaviour and learning. The paediatrician advised a blood test, another week passed for the results which in turn came back within normal range. Only then did we suspect foods. The Food Intolerance Network always advises their members to check products containing fats or oils for hidden synthetic antioxidants. I rang our supermarket to double check if there were any changes in their sunflower oil that we use, and they advised there were none. I then rang the bread company and spoke to their Quality Operations Officer. I asked if there were any synthetic antioxidants in their product in question, he said he was pretty sure there wasn't. We insisted that he double check because we were at wits' end and we were ready to have our son's head scanned because he was so aggressive and erratic in his behaviour. The man rang back in shock and was very apologetic, because the oil which was supposed to be 'pure canola oil' as stated on the ingredients list, in fact had synthetic antioxidant 319 in it.

We were relieved but angry, our son was put through four weeks of hell, not to mention us as well, because he could not control what he was doing, and it took well over a week for the affects to wear off. We had our good boy back and he even said, "Mummy please don't give me bad food any more"!

When our son has had foods with hidden synthetic antioxidants in them, we consider the reaction our son displayed as life threatening, for example, when our son becomes enraged with fury, usually over something trivial, he has run out onto the road. Another time when I was driving down the mountain on hair pin bend roads, enraged, our son got hold of my hood on my jacket and was pulling on it while I was doing my best to manoeuvre the car down the road without hitting the guard rails and going over the cliff. We believe that these antioxidants should at all times appear on the label. – L....., NSW [Thanks to this mother, Laucke's gluten free bread is now free of nasty antioxidants]

[1045] 319: Very sick and severe constipation from TBHQ in soymilk

When my son started on the elimination diet at first he wouldn't eat much and was drinking a lot of soymilk. After he had been drinking So Good soymilk for two years, he got very sick and suffered severe constipation for over 6 months. I couldn't get a straight answer from the manufacturer, at first they denied their product contained antioxidants. I was given the wrong information for two years until they agreed they were using an oil containing 319 (TBHQ). After I complained to the council they changed their labelling or was it just a coincidence? I don't think it's good enough. I switched my son to another brand of soymilk and he did much better but I'm just so angry about manufacturers getting away with making our children sick with what they put in their foods. – M....., NSW [Thanks to the dedication of this mother, Sanitarium So Good is now free of nasty antioxidants]

[1044] 320: Stomach and behavioural reaction to unlisted antioxidants in ricemilk (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

I have two young boys with autism and severe food intolerances. They become exceedingly ill when consuming any gluten, dairy or soy product, and I have kept these products from their diet successfully for the past 5 years. My children are also severely intolerant of various food additives, including BHA. Two days ago I purchased a carton of Rice Milk, and after one glass both of my children suffered stomach pains and diarrhoea; and the elder son suffered shaking, sweating, and fever. Both boys behaviour became extremely hyperactive and suffered erratic mood swings. (Thanks to this mother and the one below for contacting the manufacturer, the Vitasoy range is now free of nasty antioxidants) – N..., WA

[1043] 320: Asthma from unlisted antioxidants in ricemilk (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

My 11 year old asthmatic daughter is extremely sensitive to additives. After she reacted to some ricemilk recently, I emailed Vitasoy and expressed my disappointment with their company for not listing the BHA. Today I received a phone call from the manager to apologise for the unlisted BHA. What a turn around, the company were genuinely distressed that their health food had caused an asthmatic reaction and were willing to modify the product in due course. (Thanks to this mother and the one above for contacting the manufacturer, the Vitasoy range is now free of nasty antioxidants) – S...., NSW

[1042] 320: Night terrors and oppositional defiance from fries with 320 (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

We know that our 5 year old daughter is intolerant of all the nasty additives, colours, preservatives etc. I was very surprised in the 'Food Tables for People Sensitive to Ingredients or Allergens' at what they are claiming - no additives in their nuggets or fries!! Certainly not what my daughter's additive radar indicates because last time she ate there, we had her up in the night screaming with "night terrors" and three days of ODD attitude. – K...., Vic

(Antioxidants are not regarded as preservatives so are not listed in the Ingredient and Allergen table. In the full ingredients list it doesn't show exactly what canola oil blend is. Contacted McDonald - Vegetable oil (High Oleic Canola, Canola, High Oleic Sunflower, Palmolein), Antifoam (900a), it is correct as on 14/1/15 confirmed by Tracy)

[1041] 319: Serious breathing difficulties due to 319 TBHQ (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

I have always been sensitive to perfumes and cleaning products. Until I was 27, the worst allergy that I had suffered was to hair dye which resulted in an all over body rash and swollen lymph glands.

Then about two years ago I had an allergic reaction to some potato chips. This reaction caused my tongue to swell and slight breathing difficulties. However the swelling went down and my breathing went back to normal with antihistamines. Originally I suspected that flavour enhancers were responsible for my reactions. However I have since eaten food with these additives and have not had any reactions. I began avoiding dairy products believing that I had had an allergic reaction to some milk powder in flavouring on the chips. Following this incident, maybe a few weeks later, I went out to lunch with a work colleague to a fast food restaurant and ordered the chilli. As I was still under the impression it was dairy at this point, I felt it was a safe choice. However about 15 minutes after I had finished eating, I started to have difficulty breathing. This was a feeling of a tightening throat and heavy chest. I took antihistamines and could tell that it was not working. So I was driven to a doctor straight away. The doctor almost immediately gave me adrenaline. With this my breathing returned to normal and I was taken to hospital for observation overnight.

As a result of this reaction I was sent to see an immunologist. After discussing my reactions and having skin prick tests done for "standard" allergens (which were all negative), I was instructed to keep a food diary and cross reference the food ingredients that were in my "bad' foods to see if a process of elimination could determine the allergen that had given me my reactions. My immunologist contacted the fast food restaurant to obtain the recipe for me, so that I could begin to eliminate ingredients that had not caused my reaction.

The result was two food additives: 319 (in the oil the potato chips were cooked in) and 385 a preservative used in the beans of the chilli. My immunologist had never come across anyone with this type of reaction to 319 or 385, but agreed with my food diary analysis. Since I discovered this I read the label of everything that I eat. Unfortunately I have had one more serious reaction to food additive 319, due to a misunderstanding between myself and a relative who used oil with additive 319 to cook otherwise additive-free fresh meat. So I now avoid foods (mainly oils and foods cooked in oils) with these additives and have not had a reaction since. My sensitivity to perfumes and cleaning products has become worse since the development of my allergy. My sensitivity to perfumes and cleaning products has become worse since the development of my allergy and I was warned that since my allergy developed as an adult that there may be other additives that I can become sensitive/allergic too. – Caroline, by email (Presumably the original allergy to a hair dye was to 319 TBHQ, see LaCoz reference in Factsheet)

[1040] 320: Asthma and antioxidants (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

I am writing to thank you for all the help your book 'Fed up with Asthma' has given my family. My daughter is two and a half years old, and was diagnosed with asthma when she was 10 months old. She was hospitalized with croup and later we were told she has asthma. She was put on a steroid puffer and I was told she would need this for most of her childhood.

I knew that food additives were not safe and I tried not to buy anything with 'numbers' on the back of the packs, which proved to be difficult. Still this didn't seem to help, I also put her on goats milk and took her off all other dairy products.

I took her to an asthma pediatrician, three months ago. He gave her an allergy prick test which came back totally negative. She was allergic to nothing! The doctor assumed that food was not a cause of her asthma. I was told that the cold winter nights were triggering her asthma, to go home and put her back on her steroid puffer. This winter she seemed to get worse. As the cold nights set in, her coughing increased to the point that I was up every 20 minutes comforting her. I was desperately trying to keep her off the steroid puffer and I was about to give in, when I saw your book.

My daughter has now been on the elimination diet for three weeks with amazing results. By the end of the first day she coughed only once, same the second day and the next two days nothing. At the end of the second week I made a mistake. I bought a packet of plain rice crackers, the ingredients: rice, canola oil and salt. I thought they would be okay (I realised later they probably contain antioxidants in the oil), so my daughter had quite a lot as a snack. That night she was back to coughing every two minutes and using her ventolin puffer. After 24 hours she was okay again and back on the failsafe diet. I realise that we still need to discover her sensitivities but for now she can breath easy with no barking cough and we can both have a good nights sleep. If it hadn't been for your dedication to this cause I don't where we would be today. Thank you. - reader from WA

[1039] 320: Irritable bowel reactions to 321 BHT and 320 BHA (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

The food that I react to the worst is oil because of the 321 BHT manmade antioxidant and 320 BHA, and then I also react to all the foods that the oil is in. For example: most frozen pastries - like sausage rolls, party pies, family pies, pastry sheets, even some gelati/sorbet as well. Homebrand mint slice biscuits - they are shocking, having both 320 and 321! All margarines, and spreadable butters - if you can spread it, it's in there. Also as you know, because there is a limit on how much they can put in before they have to mention the additive - I get caught out easily with a lot of foods because I don't know if the 321 is in there and I might take the risk. Most foods just frustratingly say 'oil' but they never say what is in the flipping oil! Where I used to live, there were two different fish and chips shops, one I would get very sick from, the other I would be fine. I can only cook with a few brands of oil and pure butter, because even a teaspoon of a spreadable butter mixed into a huge pasta bake makes me very ill.

First thing that happens is I start to get an uncomfortable feeling in my gut, right across the middle. Sometimes, it's only gas, but it's chronic gas - the kind that gives you extreme abdominal discomfort until it's released and then it's foul smelling. And it's never just one, they go for hours. If I don't get extreme gas, I'll get the uncomfortable feeling in my stomach that feels like pain soaking into my gut trickling through like spidery fingers and within 20 minutes if I'm not on a toilet quick smart, I am in extreme pain. Pain that stabs through my guts and makes me intensely sensitive to the cold, so if the toilet is cold, which most usually are and I don't have a big jacket on I am in serious pain/trouble. While all that is happening on the toilet, I am experiencing extreme diarrhoea. - B....., Vic

[1038] 320: A Disastrous Christmas (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

At Christmas we went for a month's holiday to New Zealand. I got slack on avoiding preservatives so he was eating lots of peanut butter with BHA (320). The worst thing is that we didn't really think about what was causing his deteriorating behaviour, but just battled through our holiday trying to cope with it. We returned home but it wasn't until he returned to school and went from an average maths student at the end of 2003 to bottom of the class in a remedial group at the start of 2004, and looking back at the horrendous hour-long tantrums we were experiencing at home, that I seriously started questioning what was going on. Living with him was like treading on eggshells. At the end of one particularly distressing tantrum he said he hated himself and hated the way he felt. His teachers said he has NO concentration. I had noticed this myself at home during the holidays but STILL didn't think of diet! He had also totally lost interest in playing the piano which he was mad keen on before we went on holidays. He said it was too hard.

I phoned Woolworths to double check on the ingredients in their gluten free Kerry Formula bread. They told me they don't put preservatives in their bread. Then when I asked specifically about E320 she said, oh yes, it has that.

Anyway, apart from 320 being in the bread he was eating 2-3 times a day, I'm not sure of what other preservatives he's had, but for nearly 2 weeks now he's been off them all and his behaviour has become quite reasonable. He has again become excited about playing the piano, and I have my lovely little boy back. Even my husband who is a bit of a 'disbeliever' until he is thoroughly convinced has noticed a big difference.

I can't believe I let all of this happen. And when it was happening I can't believe I didn't see it earlier. It's scary that chemicals permitted in our foods can have such an extreme effect. My son avoids gluten because he hates being sick. There is no problem there. But preservatives are more difficult. I can keep him off them now, but when he's a teenager will he have to become antisocial and drop to the bottom of the class again and reach rock bottom before he is determined to avoid them, because at the moment he can't, or doesn't want to, understand the connection. It's very hard, but when I feel sorry for myself or him I just remind myself that at least we know what the problem is. Wouldn't it be awful having that sort of behaviour and not knowing why? – reader from NSW.

[1037] 320: Unlabelled antioxidants in vegetable oil (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

Our very aggressive five year old improved dramatically on the elimination diet. We were quite surprised and relieved that he passed most of his challenges except for a few additives such as artificial colours. However, after several weeks of excellent behaviour, he gradually deteriorated to the stage where he was uncontrollable, breaking windows and punching others. We were at a loss to explain the downturn. Eventually, we found the culprit - unlabelled BHA 320 in vegetable oil used in a gourmet garlic paste that we had started to use more frequently. There was no effect when it was eaten occasionally, but it caused catastrophic results when used every day. – reader from the NT

[1036] 320: Protease inhibitor deficiency (from submission to FSANZ 2006)

Over the years, I have had some quite serious reactions to foods containing the antioxidants BHA and BHT. I have been advised that the reason for my particular sensitivity is genetic deficiency of an important protease inhibitor protein. I have a 70 percent deficiency of Alpha1-protease inhibitor (aka alpha1-antitrypsin, alpha1-serpin).

PI deficiency is the most common genetic disorder, affecting about 15 percent of Australians (The pi gene is co-dominant, with about 1 in 400 Australians carrying the severe deficiency). The protease inhibitor is a down-regulator of inflammatory processes associated with a number of metabolic pathways, particularly the myeloperoxidase (MPO) pathway. Consequently, I have adverse reactions with exposure to a number of substances at levels that are generally considered to be safe for persons with the normal pi genotype.

I am very concerned about the wider use of these substances as food additives, particularly where the use of additive is not described on the product packaging. – reader from NSW.

 Use of synthetic antioxidants around the world

Australia Supermarket cooking oils are often pure oil. If antioxidants are used they will be listed on the label (always read the label!) The same oils in commercial packs (used for cooking takeaways etc) usually but not always contain synthetic antioxidants. For supermarket products, see Shopping List

New Zealand Most supermarket oils and products containing oils contain nasty antioxidants. See local contacts for the NZ shopping list

Britain Most supermarket oils and products containing oils contain nasty antioxidants. Join the failsafe UK group for the UK shopping list

USA Nasty antioxidants are widely used

Asia In Nepalese villages, traditional mustard seed oil is free of antioxidants, but it is rapidly being replaced by cheap soybean oil. We found the soybean oil could contain nasty antioxidants if from India, but was antioxidant free if from Singapore.

 How to avoid BHA and other synthetic antioxidants

Avoid unlabelled fried foods such as hot chips, French fries and takeaways unless you know what the ingredients are. Assume that unlabelled products with vegetable oil will contain nasty antioxidants. Read labels – you can often see discarded cans outside the back doors of restaurants. For any product that contains vegetable oil, ask food manufacturers about antioxidants through their hotlines or websites.

Some products that may contain synthetic antioxidants (ingredients change constantly, see Failsafe shopping list)

  • Frozen chips
  • Biscuits
  • Supermarket oils
  • Any product that contains
  • Margarine
  • Butter (spreadable not pure)
  • Fast food restaurant online ingredient lists

To avoid harmful antioxidants, you must stick to the products listed on the Failsafe shopping list, or contact the manufacturer directly yourself. We shouldn't have to rely on word of mouth to judge the safety of food products. Public health is not protected when parents have to go to these lengths to safeguard their children.

Antioxidants to avoid

These antioxidants should be avoided (Australia/NZ, USA/Canada, Europe)

  • 310 propyl gallate (E310)
  • 311 octyl gallate (E311)
  • 312 dodecyl gallate (E312)
  • 319 tBHQ tert-Butylhydroquinone (E319)
  • 320 BHA butylated hydroxyanisole (E320)
  • 321 BHT butylated hydroxytoluene (E321)

These additives can used in foods labelled 'no preservatives' because technically they are antioxidants rather than preservatives. See safe alternatives below. 

Safe alternatives

  • 300 Ascorbic acid (vitamin C)
  • 301 Sodium ascorbate
  • 302 Calcium ascorbate
  • 303 Potassium ascorbate
  • 304 Ascorbyl palmitate
  • 306 Mixed tocopherols (vitamin E)
  • 307 dl-a-Tocopherol
  • 308 g-Tocopherol
  • 309 d-Tocopherol
  • The use of opaque containers

 The science

Synthetic antioxidants BHA (320) and BHT (321) were some of the first problems identified when food additives started to become common around the middle of the 20th century. Later TBHQ and gallates (310-312) were added to the range.

Since then, due the growth of giant corporations, science has changed from an independent search for the truth into part of an industry strategy that University of Pittsburgh epidemiologist Dr Devra Davis describes as 'a combination of deceptive advertising, sophisticated scientific spin and strongarm politics'. Case reports and sound early studies are disqualified by strict rules of proof designed to support industry; animal studies are claimed as irrelevant to humans unless they support the industry viewpoint; human reports of adverse effects are regarded as 'anecdotes'; and the only acceptable evidence is expensive, time-consuming double-blind placebo-controlled studies which are difficult to fund, discredited by industry-funded scientists, and not regarded as 'proof' unless there are lots of them. (Davis, 2007)

Over many years, case reports and studies about gallates and synthetic antioxidants have documented contact dermatitis associated with each of these antioxidants; problems from gallates in asthmatics and people who are sensitive to aspirin; 'nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, suffocating feelings and collapse' associated with small amounts of TBHQ; forestomach cancers in rats and hamsters at high levels of BHA (the human equivalent of forestomach is mouth, throat and gullet); and increased the incidence of lung tumours in mice and liver bladder and possibly food canal in rats associated with BHT. Some studies also showed beneficial effects. (Hanssen 2002) Faced by this contradictory evidence, scientists in the 1970s urged caution and to this day, gallates and synthetic antioxidants are not permitted in baby food.

Gallates (310-312), TBHQ (319) and particularly BHA and BHT (320-321) have been associated with a wide range of food intolerance reactions including asthma and children's learning and behaviour problems (Loblay RH and Swain AR; Fisherman EW and Cohen G 1973; Schoenthaler, Doraz et al. 1986) . Recent research has suggested a link to the rise in food allergies (Rockwell 2015).

Studies of behaviour and learning

Young mice born to mothers whose diet included BHA and who ate BHA themselves showed increased exploration, decreased sleeping, decreased self-grooming and slower learning than additive free controls (Stokes & Scudder, 1974), a pretty good description of what happens in overactive children but dismissed by JECFA (Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives) experts as 'slight behavioural impairment'.

Young rats born to mothers whose diets included high doses of BHA or BHT and who ate BHA or BHT themselves were 2-3 times more likely to die than additive free controls and showed an auditory developmental delay which was more marked with BHT than BHA. (Vorhees et al., 1979).

When over 800 schools in New York introduced a low-additive policy for school meals, removing 14 artificial colours, BHA and BHT progressively over a period of 4 years, SAT score rankings improved from 11% below average to 5% above in 4 years and the number of children classified as learning disabled more than halved. Additives were removed in three stages, and at each stage there was a noticeable improvement including the final stage when BHA and BHT were removed. (Schoenthaler SJ and others. The impact of a low food additive and sucrose diet on academic performance in 803 New York City public schools. International Journal of Biosocial Research, 1986 (8)2:185-195. PDF available.)

Although studies of the Feingold hypothesis regarding artificial colours reported mixed results, two studies which avoided artificial colours, preservatives, BHA, BHT and salicylates reported a significant improvement in the behaviour of fifteen hyperactive Australian children (Salzman, 1976) and the behaviour of ten hyperactive preschool boys (Harley et al 1978).

However, by 2007, using the new corporate-friendly scientific approach, the experts who regulate our food had disqualified all past studies that didn't meet their strict requirements and decreed there are 'no adverse effects' of either gallates or synthetic antioxidants (Skurray, 2007). That's what regulators have been saying that about artificial colours for 30 years, a postition that has been re-evaluated in Europe in the light of the University of Southampton study (McCann et al, 2007).

If you think the JECFA experts are correct, read an insider's account of how the food industry has taken control of global nutrition and additive information by former USDA nutritionist Dr Luise Light. And consider what former Institutes of Health researcher Dr Devra Davis says:

'those who profit from the continued use of some risky technologies have devised well-financed efforts to sow doubt about many modern hazards ... The best crafted public relations campaigns masquerade as independent scientific information from unimpeachable authorities.'

From The secret history of the war on cancer by Devra Davis, Basic Books, New York 2007 

Scientific references

Brun R. Dermatologica. 1970;140(6):390-4. [Contact eczema due to an antioxidant of margarine (gallate) and change of occupation] [Article in French]

Burckhardt W, Fierz U, Antioxidants in margarine as the cause of occupational eczemas [Article in German] Dermatologica. 1964;129:431-2.

Clarke L. and others. 'The dietary management of food allergy and food intolerance in children and adults'. Australian Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics 1996; 53(3):89-94.

Hanssen, M. New Additive Code Breaker, 2002, Lothian, South Melbourne, p14-15.

Hausen BM, Beyer W. Contact Dermatitis. 1992 Apr;26(4):253-8. The sensitizing capacity of the antioxidants propyl, octyl, and dodecyl gallate and some related gallic acid esters. Department of Dermatology, University Hospital, Hamburg, Germany.

8 alkyl gallates, including the widely used antioxidants propyl, octyl, and dodecyl (= lauryl) gallate, have been subjected to experimental sensitization in guinea pigs. Using a modern sensitization procedure, the results showed that all gallates are moderate to strong contact sensitizers: dodecyl (= lauryl) gallate was found to be the strongest. A characteristic correlation between side chain length and mean response was observed, giving a maximum of sensitization at a length of 12 carbon atoms (dodecyl gallate). A literature review revealed that the frequency of reports of allergic contact dermatitis from antioxidants of the gallate type has increased in the last 4 years. In most cases, the moderate sensitizer propyl gallate was the source of sensitization.

Fisherman EW and Cohen G. Chemical intolerance to Butylated-Hydroxyanisole and Butylated-Hydroxytoluene, Annals of Allergy 1973;31:126-133.

Juhlin L. Recurrent urticaria: clinical investigation of 330 patients. Br J Dermatol. 1981;104(4):369-81

Feingold BF. Dietary management of nystagmus. J Neural Transm. 1979;45(2):107-15

Two case reports illustrate the improvement of eye muscle disorders on a diet avoiding synthetic food colors, synthetic food flavors, the antioxidant preservatives butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), and a small group of foods thought to contain a natural salicylate radical. Dr Feingold also proposed 'a variety of neurologic and neuromuscular disturbances (grand mal, petit mal, psychomotor seizures; La Tourette syndrome; autism; retardation; the behavioral component of Down's syndrome; and oculomotor disturbances) may be induced by identical chemicals, depending upon the individual's genetic profile and the interaction with other environmental factors.'

Rockwell, CE (2011-2016): Turley AE, Zagorski JW, Rockwell CE. The Nrf2 activator tBHQ inhibits T cell activation of primary human CD4 T cells. Cytokine. 2015 Feb;71(2):289-95. doi: 10.1016/j.cyto.2014.11.006. Epub 2014 Dec 5.  Common additive may be why you have food allergies (319 tBHQ)

Salzman LK. Allergy testing, psychological assessment and dietary treatment of the hyperactive child syndrome. Med J Aust. 1976 14;2(7):248-51.;itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

Thirty-one children with behavioural problems and learning difficulties were allergy tested for sensitivity to salicylates, artificial colours and flavours, eighteen children had a positive response, and 15 of these were given the Australian Version of the Feingold K.P. diet. Ninety-three per cent responded with improved behaviour in the areas of overactivity, distractability, impulsiveness and excitability. Sleep and enuresis problems were resolved partially or completely. This study demonstrates that the aforementioned elimination diet significantly affects behaviour.

Schoenthaler, S., W. Doraz, et al. (1986). "The impact of a low food additive and sucrose diet on academic performance in 803 New York City public schools." International Journal of Biosocial Research 8(2): 185-195.

Swain A, Soutter V, Loblay R, Truswell AS. Salicylates, oligoantigenic diets, and behaviour. Lancet. 1985;2(8445):41-2.

Witschi H and others. Metabolism and pulmonary toxicity of butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). Pharmacol Ther. 1989;42(1):89-113.

van der Meeren HL Dodecyl gallate, permitted in food, is a strong sensitizer.Contact Dermatitis. 1987 ;16(5):260-2.

This study found contact allergy in 4 of 10 workers having only limited contact with dodecyl gallate (antioxidant 312) in the very low concentration of 0.05% and concluded "It is important to recognize its strong sensitizing capacity... Workers working with dodecyl gallate should avoid direct skin contact."

van Ketel WG. Dermatitis from octyl gallate in peanut butter. Contact Dermatitis. 1978;4(1):60-1.

 Further information

Fed Up: understanding how food affects your child and what to do about it  by Sue Dengate, Random House 2008

Introduction to food intolerance

The information given is not intended as medical advice. Always consult with your doctor for underlying illness. Before beginning dietary investigation, consult a dietician with an interest in food intolerance. You can see our list of experienced and supportive dietitians

© Sue Dengate update Feb 2017