Are You Gonna Light That Potato Chip?

potato chips | photo: Evan Amos

It's time for a new word of the day; except it really isn't a word.  It's a conglomeration of letters that frequently appears in the ingredients section of a food label.  Most consumers skip right over it because they don't understand it.  So let me be the first person to assure you that nature does not produce food by alphabet soup.  It should be clearly understandable in words like kale, apple, celery, and eggs.

This word isn't really a word, it's a non-word, and a non-food at that.  What is it?


Does it look familiar?  If it doesn't that's okay, but now that I've brought it to your attention I hope that when you read the label (and you are reading labels aren't you?) it will stand out.  And not in a good way.

TBHQ is the abbreviation for tertiary butylhydroquinone.  That's not exactly any clearer than the abbreviation.  What, exactly is TBHQ and why is it in the food?  It's a preservative; a fake anti-oxidant if you will.  It's found in a wide array of foods and is there to help delay rancidity and extend the shelf life.

As mentioned in The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan:

    But perhaps the most alarming ingredient in a Chicken McNugget is tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, an antioxidant derived from petroleum that is either sprayed directly on the nugget or the inside of the box it comes in to “help preserve freshness.” According to A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives, TBHQ is a form of butane (i.e. lighter fluid) the FDA allows processors to use sparingly in our food: It can comprise no more than 0.02 percent of the oil in a nugget. Which is probably just as well, considering that ingesting a single gram of TBHQ can cause “nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse.” Ingesting five grams of TBHQ can kill.
There are also claims that TBHQ can cause anxiety and restlessness in children.  Animal studies appear to indicate the possibility of large amounts causing stomach problems and oxidative DNA damage.  
My suggestion, as always, remains the same.  Eat whole food, understand what you are eating, and read the label.  By the way, TBHQ can also appear in pet food.  You may want to consider reading those labels as well.  After all, if you're not going to eat it why should they?

About Mira

Mira Dessy is The Ingredient Guru. A holistic nutrition professional, author, and a popular public speaker, she knows that it's not just what you eat, but what's in what you eat. She is the author of The Pantry Principle: how to read the label and understand what’s really in their food. Dessy is a Board Certified Holistic Health Practitioner whose mission is to educate and empower consumers. She curates the Lean Clean Green Subscription box, the premier, organic, earth-friendly, healthy, sustainable subscription box which can be found online at