Common additive may be why you have food allergies

common additives

A Michigan State University researcher has found that a common food additive may be linked to a rise in food allergies.

Cheryl Rockwell, an assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the College of Human Medicine, began studying the possible link between the synthetic food additive tert-butylhydroquinone, or tBHQ, nine years ago.

Now she has received an award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to continue her work. The Outstanding New Environmental Scientist, or ONES, award comes with a $1.5 million, five-year grant to support her research.

Rockwell has dreamed of winning the award since she was a postgraduate student. She recently was notified that she was among only five researchers this year to be selected.

Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1972, tBHQ is a preservative in many foods, such as cooking oil, nuts, crackers, waffles and breads. Often tBHQ is not listed on the label, Rockwell said.

Her research has shown that tBHQ causes T cells, a critical part of the body’s immune system, to release a set of proteins that can trigger allergies to such foods as nuts, milk, eggs, wheat and shell fish.

“I think of the immune system as a military force,” Rockwell said. “Its job is to protect the body from pathogens, such as viruses. The T cells are the generals.”

Normally, the T cells release proteins, known as cytokines, that help fight the invaders, she said, but when tBHQ was introduced in laboratory models, the T cells released a different set of cytokines that are known to trigger allergies to some foods.

Her studies showed that when tBHQ was present, the T cells started behaving differently.

“The T cells stopped acting as soldiers in the defense against pathogens and started causing allergies, Rockwell said. “What we’re trying to find out now is why the T cells are behaving this way.”

The expanded use of tBHQ, she said, parallels a rise in food allergies and an increase in the severity of some allergic reactions.

With her ONES grant, Rockwell plans to study a signaling pathway she has identified in cells that appears to play a role in causing the food allergies when tBHQ is present. She hopes to identify other chemicals that trigger that same signaling pathway.

“We think there could be quite a few,” she said, including lead and cadmium.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences created the ONES program to support researchers early in their careers and conduct innovative research to study how the environment influences human health.

“This project is my baby,” she said. “I need to keep it going.”


Michigan State University has been working to advance the common good in uncommon ways for more than 150 years. One of the top research universities in the world, MSU focuses its vast resources on creating solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 200 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.

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  1. ABBY e says

    I am so glad this nasty little petrochemical is getting some attention. It can also trigger behaviors such as rage. I hope it will be banned from our food supply someday soon!

  2. Amelia S. says

    I recently found out I was sensitive to nuts, milk, eggs, and wheat… it all makes sense now!!!!

  3. Richard Irvine says

    Looking forward to future updates, I am concerned about my seven year old son and what is going into his body.

    1. Vince Sauve says

      What are his symptoms?

  4. susan says

    Wonderful research, and I hope it leads to getting this out of our food, not to inventing a drug to “help” our bodies to tolerate it

  5. Sheila says

    Within the last two years I cannot have any dairy products. I cannot stand it and the Lactaid I bought doesn’t work. I had 1 smores pop tart and felt it for 2 entire days! I am currently 33 yrs old, 5’5″ and, if I’m lucky, almost 120 pounds, and I really have felt like it’s had everything to do with not being able to hold onto that milk fat… If it’s a food additive that’s the actual cause, maybe I can shop around that instead of anything with milk in it. Is there anything I can do to enjoy dairy again? And are any ideas on how to put on some healthy weight?

    1. Heather says

      Hi Sheila,
      I’ve also struggled to put on healthy weight in recent years. If it’s really a lactose intolerance issue, try Lactase drops (they can be ordered through, don’t need to dissolve like pills, don’t have all the nasty additives). Lactaid pills often didn’t work for me either; the drops do. If that isn’t an option, you could try adding protein powder (I like rice), eggs, olive oil, nut butters (or sunbutter), whole grain pasta, etc. to your diet when possible. This may just be me, but I’ve found that my body has much more trouble digesting various foods (including dairy) when stomach bacteria and minerals/vitamins are out of whack, so implementing a good multivitamin (read the labels – they’re all very different) and a probiotic might be worth considering if you don’t already take them. Best of luck to you!

    2. haeley says

      Lactose intolerance is common in adults and is not a food allergy; in is your body not producing enough lactase enzyme to break down the lactose sugar in milk (nothing to do with the fat). The undigested sugar is then broken down by bacteria in your digestive system and they produce gas and waste that irritates your intestines and causes pain, bloating, and diarrhea. I agree, the lactaid pills do not work well, I have to take 5 or 6 at a time to eat cheese, ice cream is impossible. The products that are pre treated with the enzyme, like lactose free milk are much much better. After a while you find out what works and what doesn’t and you get used to eating a little differently. And just think of all the extra calories you avoid by ordering everything without cheese, a scoop of ice cream, or whipped cream!

    3. zbo says

      Have you done any research on gluten intolerance? Being underweight is one common symptom. Many people who are sensitive to gluten are also sensitive to lactose. (According to my doctor.)

  6. Katherine says

    Thank you, this research is fascinating. My daughter has suffered for 10 plus years with food allergies. She has become diligent about what she puts in her body, because the price she pays isn’t worth it. Her stomach becomes enormously bloated and she is in bed sick for days when contaminated. She essentially eats only fresh whole foods and cooks for herself. Not the life a 23 year old she have to live. Please keep up this important work. Eating shouldn’t be this difficult.

  7. Jennifer says

    Katherine, I empathize with you and your daughter’s situation. It is what we are living as well at our home. The thing is, that this has not been an issue until people in general became really busy and needed convenience foods, or that they became busy because they had access to convenience foods. Now a days, healthy families need someone at home ensuring that their family is eating well–by taking the time to cook with whole and fresh foods. It is very time consuming but worth the effort for health. Hopefully your daughter will find a supportive partner who has the same values and will help her to stay healthy.

  8. Claudia Hamlin says

    I wonder if this tBHQ got me so allergic. As an infant, I was allergic to beets only. Early 20’s I added all milk and milk products. However, in my 50’s and 60’s, I have added allergies to Gluten, Soy, Nuts and Peanuts, Spinach, Tomato, Mushrooms, Sweet Potatoes, Buckwheat, Apricots, Kale, Quinoa, Asparagus, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cauliflower, Okra, and Natural Colors in foods because beets are often the coloring.

    To the lady with milk problems, look for Rice Dream or ‘Coconut milk or water both to drink and in many other products including ‘ice cream’. I have a full blown allergy to all of milk and must avoid it it bread, cookies, cream sauce etc. Many health food stores sell products labeled Gluten Free that do not contain any of the other 8 common allergens. I read labels all the time! With this diet, I am healthy now.

  9. Bill Morningstar says

    Many years ago when farmers took a grist of wheat to the mill to get flour from the wheat they were always careful to only take year old wheat as the newly harvested wheat did not make as good bread as the year old wheat did. The millers have found a chemical additive to add so they do not have to wait the year. I often wonder if this chemical and celiac or gluten intolerance problems came about the same time

  10. Jeffrey says

    Great research, and could be a big help to many. However, if “Often tBHQ is not listed on the label, Rockwell said.”, how would a person know what food items it was/is in?

  11. Katrina says

    Sounds like it could also be a link to triggering autoimmune disease

  12. Rachael Corsano says

    Is tBHQ additive only found in conventional food? Or organic food as well? Thanks

  13. Vonda Ellis says

    I wonder if it’s legal and unlisted in other countries too, or just the U.S.?

  14. Christine says

    Why can ingredients be in food that are not disclosed on the ingredient list? Why is the FDA not requiring this? Eating nuts, supposedly a whole food, but it can have this additive? My family is suffering with food allergies, one began in 1998, the other 2012, never before then. Two in my family have autoimmune disorders, one teen & one adult.

  15. Catherine says

    I thought the FDA was supposed to look out for our food safety. Why is this not disclosed on the ingredient list? Makes no logical sense. Things needs to change with the FDA.

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