A common food additive might help the flu attack the body

Stopping the flu.
Stopping the flu.
Image: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
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There’s an ingredient in some common foods that may make the body more susceptible to the flu.

The emerging scientific work so far only applies to laboratory mice, which is to say it still has a long way to go before we’ll know whether humans are impacted in a similar way. Still, if the science bears out, it could wind up impacting how food companies operate, and it could give health experts new insight into how people are made more susceptible to the flu.

Tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) is an aromatic organic compound food companies often use as a preservative for unsaturated vegetable oils and many animal fats. Food companies have found it useful in lengthening the shelf life of products like found in frozen meats, crackers, and fried foods.

Michigan State University scientists report that when lab mice with TBHQ in their bodies were exposed to the influenza virus, the chemical makes important infection-fighting T cells more sluggish. That, in turn, increases the likelihood that the illness will fully set in.

The researchers’ leading hypothesis is that TBHQ causes these effects by triggering some of the proteins in the body that are known to suppress the immune system, according to study author and Michigan State PhD candidate Robert Freeborn

The research has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The work was presented at the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics annual meeting on April 8 in Orlando, Florida.

Officials at the European Food Safety Authority and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have both analyzed the ingredient in the past and deemed it safe for human consumption. The FDA mandates that TBHQ levels not exceed 0.02% of the oil or fat content of the food in which its used.

Some science has shown that exposure to high levels and prolonged exposure to high levels of TBHQ could have adverse health effects in lab animals; in particular, it can increase the risk of stomach tumors. In 1986, though, a Dutch scientist named Gerrit J. Van Esch performed a review of the available science around TBHQ and found that humans typically eat well below the level of TBHQ that’s necessary before the negative side effects seen in animal studies would be noticed.

Any new information the team of researchers dig up could wind up ultimately helping in the fight against the flu. Right now people are encouraged to get an influenza shot every year to help safeguard against the spread of the infection. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 650,000 people around the world die every year because of it, including around 60,000 of them in the US alone.