However, both firms said their actions had nothing to do with the Food Babe and were “not for safety reasons”.
Hari's petition, which garnered thousands of signatures within hours, claimed that BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) - an FDA-approved synthetic antioxidant used to maintain freshness by deterring the oxidation of fat and preventing rancidity - was “linked to cancer in some animal studies” and “interferes with our hormones” (Hari provides links to sources at the bottom of her petition HERE).
The fact that European versions of top cereal brands including Kellogg’s Rice Krispies and General Mills’ Cinnamon Toast Crunch did not contain BHT also suggested that it was not mission critical from a technical perspective and that “safer” alternatives were available, claimed Hari.
“Why is it okay for Americans to eat this risky chemical for breakfast when these companies have already figured out a way to make and sell their cereals fine without it?”
She went on to quote Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, who claimed that BHT had been “linked to cancer and developmental effects in animals”, along with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which says BHT is “unnecessary or is easily replaced by safe substitutes” and should be “avoided where possible”.
General Mills: This change is not for safety reasons, but because we think consumers will embrace it
However, Mike Siemienas, manager, brand media relations at General Mills told FoodNavigator-USA that BHT was safe and legal, but that the company was “already well down the path of removing it from our cereals” [Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios, Trix, Kix and Lucky Charms are already BHT-free] and had been testing “many alternatives” for some time.
While Hari immediately issued a press release claiming that General Mill's move was “a giant victory for the Food Babe Army”, Siemienas said she played no role in its decision.
He added: “Our removal of BHT from cereals is well underway and has been for more than a year. This change is not for safety reasons, but because we think consumers will embrace it. We’ve never spoken with Vani Hari and she did not play any role in our decision.”
Kellogg:‘We know some people are looking for options without BHT’
Kellogg Company spokesperson Kris Charles, meanwhile, said it, too, was exploring alternatives to BHT, which is on the influential Whole Foods Market list of 'unacceptable ingredients'.
She said: “BHT is a common antioxidant, approved for use by the FDA. BHT is used in small amounts primarily in the cereal package liner and helps protect the flavor and freshness, which we know is important to our consumers.
“However, we know some people are looking for options without BHT, and we are actively testing a number of natural alternatives to ensure the same flavor and freshness [the firm cited "tocopherol, a naturally occurring compound related to vitamin E, and rosemary extract"]. In addition, our Kashi cereals do not contain BHT in the liners.”
Dr Miller Jones: Food industry stuck between a rock and a hard place
So is this a victory for consumers or another example of the food industry pandering to an influential blogger some critics claims is on a mission to eradicate anything with a name you can't pronounce from the food supply, regardless of the data?
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA on Thursday, Julie Miller Jones, PhD, CNS, LN, distinguished scholar and professor emerita, foods and nutrition, at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn, said food companies were increasingly “capitulating” to the demands of activists and bloggers regardless of the science because “perception is reality” and once an ingredient has become tarnished in the minds of consumers - fairly or unfairly - its days are numbered.
She added: “Whatever big food companies say at this stage, consumers say ‘Well they would say that wouldn’t they’, so they are stuck between a rock and hard place.”
BHT doesn’t bioaccumulate in the body
But is BHT safe?
At the levels to which consumers are exposed, yes, claimed Dr Jones. “The dose makes the poison. Look at nutrients, if you don’t get enough vitamin A you can go blind. If you have too much it can lead to dizziness, nausea, headaches, coma, and even death. In the case of BHT, which has been approved by JECFA [the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives], people are exposed to very small doses that are significantly under the ADIs [acceptable daily intakes set by scientific bodies and regulators].”
“I’d also point out that BHT doesn’t bioaccumulate in the body, it has a very short half-life.”
She added: “BHT is there to stop rancid fat [oxidized fat], and we do know for sure that oxidized cholesterol is very bad for cardiovascular health.”
Asked to comment on the Food Babe’s claims that “rats fed BHT have developed lung and liver tumors”, that it causes “developmental effects and thyroid changes in animals” and that it negatively impacted motor skills and coordination in young animals, Dr Jones noted that a 1999 review had found that at the levels to which humans are exposed, BHT posed “no cancer hazard and, to the contrary, may be anticarcinogenic at current levels of food additive use”.
Meanwhile, a Dutch study investigating dietary intake of BHA and BHT and stomach cancer risk showed no association, while another study showed that BHT was “antimutagenic or anticarcinogenic against a diversity of chemical carcinogens affecting a variety of tissues in experimental animals”, she said.
“BHT can be a carcinogen at high doses but it can also be an anti-carcinogen, and there are studies showing that animals lived longer because of the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Likewise, people quote studies saying BHT increased cancer in rodents' forestomachs, but humans don't have a forestomach. And the same studies showed a decrease in cancers of the liver. The problem is that the Food Babe is not reporting all of the data or providing any context."
But Hari said this was missing the point, adding: "It’s not proven safe, while evidence of concern is growing. Wouldn’t it be much better to err on the side of caution?"
EFSA: Exposure levels are well below the acceptable daily intakes
An EFSA scientific opinion published in 2012 said that “using a worst-case scenario of combined exposure to BHT from the food categories where use as a food additive is authorized", estimated potential exposure for adults was on average 0.01-0.03 mg/kg bw/day [well below the ADI of 0.25 mg/kg bw/day].
"Based on its use in food contact materials with a specific migration limit of 3 mg/kg food and with the assumption that every day throughout lifetime a person weighing 60 kg consumes 1 kg of food packed in plastics containing BHT, migration would increase exposure to BHT by 0.05 mg/kg bw/day," added EFSA.
The EFSA panel, which also noted that "BHT in high doses can exert tumor-promoting effects in some animal models", said that the "majority of evidence indicates a lack of potential for BHT to induce point mutations, chromosomal aberrations, or to interact with or damage DNA."