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Conspiracy Theories

Please Don’t Feed Your Baby Homemade Formula!

By March 24, 2016 6 Comments

Yesterday a friend shared a story about Kristin Cavallari’s recipe for homemade baby formula.  In case you’re wondering, yes, the very same Kristin Cavallari that rose to fame in reality shows Laguna Beach and The Hills (Google it kids, if you don’t remember them). I’m sure Kristin is a great mother and loves her kids dearly – but a nutritionist or International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) she is not.

In my practice as an IBCLC, there are few topics that I feel strongly enough about to tell parents that they absolutely should not do. Many of our choices as parents are more of a matter of opinion and preference than safety. What we do is largely based in love and a desire to do the best for our children. How we feed them and view feeding them is no different, so I’m not going to mince words here: Please don’t feed your baby homemade formula period.

Let me be clear, it’s not just Kristin Cavallari’s recipe for homemade formula. It is any recipe for homemade formula. Do not feed your baby homemade formula at all. Full stop.

Why is that? It’s important to know that it is very difficult to make it a safer option than human milk or safely prepared commercial formulas, and the people giving you recipes for homemade formula (including Ms. Cavallari) are not telling you this, likely because they don’t understand it themselves. I’m going to break down, issue by issue, why feeding your baby homemade formula is a very, very bad idea:

Issue #1: Feeding your baby raw milk carries major risks

Most recipes for homemade formula call for raw (sometimes referred to as unpasteurized) cow’s or goat’s milk, and this carries significant risk for infants. The CDC released a report in January 2015 detailing outbreaks of food-borne illnesses related to raw milk consumption, and the statistics show that children were at the highest risk for serious illness of those affected. According to the report, “from 2007-2012, 26 states reported 81 outbreaks caused by raw milk to [the] CDC. These outbreaks caused 979 illnesses and 73 hospitalizations.” 59% of those outbreaks involved at least one child younger than 5. Keep in mind that these are only reported outbreaks, meaning the actual numbers are likely higher. Raw milk may not be investigated as a culprit because in areas where raw milk may not be as accessible or acceptable people may avoid mentioning it to avoid potential repercussions, and not everyone goes to the doctor or hospital when they have an illness.

While the existence of regulations alone doesn’t prove that consumption is harmful, it is worth noting that most states restrict raw milk sales in some form. Adults should be able to make the decision to purchase raw milk and consume it after weighing the risks and benefits for themselves. Children aren’t able to do this risk-benefit analysis for themselves, and unfortunately, they stand to be at the greatest risk, which is why it is important for parents to understand the potential for harm.

Issue #2: The correct balance of nutrients is essential, and difficult to achieve.

What makes formula difficult to make at home is the issue of renal solute load. That term refers to the digestive and metabolic byproducts that the kidneys are responsible for clearing out of the body. The higher the renal solute load of a food, the more water is needed for the kidneys to properly excrete those byproducts. Protein, calcium, phosphorus, sodium, and potassium contribute to potential renal solute load, and when an infant’s immature kidneys are overtaxed, this can lead to dehydration  – and worse. Infants who are fed cow’s milk are also at risk for anemia due to the low iron content of cow’s milk, the intestinal blood loss that occurs in infants who consume cow’s milk, and the high levels of calcium and casein in cow’s milk (which impact iron absorption).


Comparison of protein, calcium, phosphorus, sodium, and potassium of human, cow, and goat milk. Click to view data source here.

As you can see from the adjacent table, human milk has much less protein, calcium, phosphorus, sodium, and
potassium than cow’s milk and goat’s milk. Goat’s milk is at times called the closest animal-milk substitute for human milk but, as you can see, it has an even higher potential renal solute load than cow’s milk.

A number of homemade formula recipes call for a liver-based mixture, which can easily contain too much vitamin A. Three ounces of chicken liver contains 185% of the daily Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin A for an adult woman; this Weston A. Price liver-based formula recipe contains two ounces of liver for an infant per day, which far exceeds the upper bound. Since vitamin A is fat soluble, it is stored in the body, and accumulates over time.

Even if we presume that the many recipes floating around for homemade infant formula are providing the correct balance of macro- and micronutrients (which they’re not), what about the other variables?

  • Not all raw milk is created equal. A cow’s milk can change during the course of lactation, just like human milk can.
  • Not all supplements are created equal. Are you using the exact brand of supplement suggested by the recipe? Different manufacturers will have different formulations.
  • Supplements often change. Has the manufacturer’s formulation of the supplements stayed the same since the recipe was created and published?
  • Is the recipe itself accurate?
  • Is the equipment you’re using to measure your ingredients accurate? Are you measuring them accurately? Here’s the story of a baby who was hospitalized for a vitamin D overdose because her mother added a dropperful of vitamin D rather than a drop to the homemade formula she was making.

Here’s additional reading about the complexities of matching the nutrition and performance of breast milk when creating substitutes.

10058357146_6697db3dbf_oIssue #3: Commercial formula manufacturers aren’t making poison – it is safe for an infant’s consumption when prepared correctly.

People who make their own formula at home usually claim they do so because they feel that commercial formula is “poison,” or the ingredient list is long and confusing. However, the people and commercial entities who put the most money and effort into researching  and replicating breast milk are those who are trying to best replicate it, because the better the formula, the easier it is to sell it at higher prices. This is not skepticism or conspiracy theory; it is basic economics.

Consider that commercial infant formula is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and manufacturers are required to demonstrate not only that their product meets certain nutritional standards, but also that their supply chain meets certain health and quality control standards, so that the formula is manufactured safely and consistently. So commercial formula manufacturers have an economic interest in ensuring their formula is safe and nutritious with as little risk as possible. Not only do they have a vested interest in creating a product as close to human milk as possible, they have a vested interest in avoiding contamination and product recalls.

While commercial infant formula keeps getting better and better, it won’t ever be the incredible, varied, ever-changing composition of a mother’s milk. Yes, a mother’s breast milk is the ideal food for her baby, but in the end, fed is best. If you feed your baby formula and prepare it correctly, they’ll be OK. My job is to support women while they breastfeed – and I also don’t think commercial formula is poison.

What I do know with certainty is that while both breastfeeding and using commercial formula carry their own unique risks (nothing in life is risk-free), that the risk of your child contracting a food-borne illness or suffering from a nutrient deficiency is much, much higher with homemade formula than with commercial formula.

Issue #4: Homemade formula is more expensive and takes more time than commercial formula.

If I haven’t convinced you by now that homemade formula is a bad idea based on the safety or nutrition factors, can we just talk for a minute about how expensive and inconvenient it is to make homemade formula?  There’s no question that companies make money off commercial formula and that the price of that formula is unnecessarily high (especially for those with lower incomes). But homemade formula is even worse!

Raw, organic cream prices in California, where you can legally buy raw milk in a store, circa 2013.

You can purchase a pre-assembled kit for all of the supplements and additives you need for homemade infant formula from Radiant Life. A 37-day supply will set you back $174 (they throw in free shipping, so it comes out to $4.70 per day just for the additives). A gallon of raw milk costs significantly more than pasteurized, homogenized (aka regular store-bought) milk. This website gives it a range of $6 to $8 per gallon. Then you need whey (homemade), which is the liquid left over from making cultured dairy products such as yogurt, cream cheese, or sour cream (made from raw milk, of course). And don’t forget the raw cream. The photo to the right was taken by a friend of mine in southern California (where retail raw milk sales are legal). There’s quite a price difference between raw and pasteurized cream, and you need two to four tablespoons of it per batch of homemade formula.

Then there’s the time involvement. You have to assemble the ingredients. If you’re not buying a pre-packed kit, you’ll be spending time sourcing individual supplements. You’ll have to find a source of raw milk, and likely drive to the farm to purchase it. You’ll have to make a batch of it each day, which is a process much more involved even than safely preparing commercial infant formula.

Maybe you’ll end up saving time only feeding your baby six times a day, though, as some of the recipes recommend 6- to 8-ounce servings. The reality is that this means a baby is getting too much to eat at meal times that are too infrequent. Infants should be eating 8 times per 24 hours (including nighttime feedings), at a minimum.

So here’s the bottom line.

If your baby is not getting your breast milk, properly prepared commercially manufactured formula or donor breastmilk received from a donation bank. We’ve come a long way from the time when a third of all infants who were bottle-fed died and unregulated formulas of the past. Nothing is 100% risk free, but it seems clear to me that homemade formula’s risks outweigh any perceived benefit, particularly for infants who have not yet started complementary/solid foods.

Every baby deserves to be fed safely. Sometimes parents and caregivers have no choice but to feed breastmilk substitutes, and sometimes caregivers may choose breastmilk substitutes. There are organizations around the world trying their best to improve those situations (here is just one of many, focusing on refugee children: Infant Feeding Support for Refugee Children), and my heart breaks for any family who does not have access to the safest ways of feeding their baby.

However, most of the people reading this will have more options. This post is written in the spirit of giving you all of the information you need to make an informed decision. I’ll leave you with one final thought. I’ve said previously, the time, effort, and money put toward sourcing the ingredients and making homemade baby formula could be spent on finding donor human milk instead.

Editor Update 3/25/16: A sentence in an earlier version of this post could have been interpreted to imply that parents should choose peer-to-peer breast milk donation before feeding commercial formula.  Feeding your child peer-to-peer donated breast milk is a practice which can carry great risk, specifically in how, unlike screened milk bank breast milk, peer-to-peer breast milk does not control for or involve clinical screening for contaminants or disease that can be transferred to an infant via the donor’s breast milk and/or the donor’s other bodily fluids (that pass to the infant during actual breastfeeding). Breast milk acquired from a breast milk donation bank may be appropriate, but not in all circumstances. As always, we urge you to consult with your child’s pediatrician and clinical team first. 

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Food, Nutrition, + Infant Feeding, Newborns + Infants, Science 101 + Mythbusting

Is Monsanto Behind Cases of Microcephaly in Brazil?

By February 17, 2016 12 Comments

I am a medical doctor and professor of public health, and I am also the father of a beautiful daughter and uncle to the world’s best niece.  We also live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  We are being inundated with information and misinformation about Zika and its correlation to microcephaly.  There is a lot of fear, which is the perfect environment for people to spread false information.

When I saw friends sharing an article based on fear and not facts, I knew I had to comment due to my background.  If you have not seen this article, you can read it here, but it claims the reported increase in microcephaly in Brazil is caused not by Zika or any other virus, but a larvicide called Pyriproxyfen.  Larvicides are used to kill mosquito larvae and since Zika is spread by mosquitoes this bit of misinformation could cost lives.

The article references a mysterious document purportedly written by “Argentine doctors.” The organization that undersigns it is the “Red Universitária de Ambiente Y Salud”, which is a loose affiliation of individuals dedicated to fighting the use of pesticides, agrotoxics and the like. Perhaps the biggest clue that the information in the document is not trustworthy is that the name of larvicide called into question is repeatedly spelled wrong throughout.

I will address the claims made in the executive summary of the document point by point.

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Chronic Illnesses + Conditions, Disability + Disability Advocacy, Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Newborns + Infants, Science 101 + Mythbusting

Is Your Pediatrician on Big Pharma’s Payroll?

By August 4, 2015 4 Comments
Kid and Doc

Pediatricians are some of the lowest paid physicians

Have you ever wondered how your pediatrician gets paid? It’s probably not something you spend a ton of time thinking about, however, there are some people who claim that every time a doctor writes a prescription or delivers a vaccine that they are paid by a pharmaceutical company to do so. Well, I am a pediatrician and I’m here to set the record straight.

Pediatrics isn’t a lucrative specialty

Before we can talk about how much your doctor makes and where that money comes from, we need to talk about what it cost them to become a doctor in the first place, because it has a big impact on how many of you may view pediatricians and their relationship to profit in general.

On average, 4 years of medical school costs over $200,000 and the average medical student graduates with $180,000 in student loan debt. After graduation, prospective pediatricians train in a 3-year residency program (pediatric specialty training) with an average salary during these years of about $55,000 per year, depending on location. Even with a 20-year loan repayment plan, the monthly payment on the loan would be $1,374, or more than half of a resident’s take-home salary. For this reason many pediatric residents put off paying their loans until they have their first job. While a resident doesn’t have to make payments during those three years of deferment, their loans still collect interest. That makes the $180,000 in student loans compound to a total of approximately $217,430 when the former-resident-turned-doctor gets their first job, and begins making payments on them.

Why is this relevant?

Next to family and general practice, pediatrics are the lowest paid medical specialty a clinician could choose to pursue. Pediatricians graduate with a massive amount of student debt and their salary makes it difficult for them to pay it off. The typical starting salary for a pediatrician may be $130,000-150,000 depending on their location. Therefore, their monthly student loan repayment for 10 years would be 30% of their monthly income, or 15% over 20 years.

If pediatricians were in it for the money, they would have chosen much more lucrative specialties. Those who choose pediatrics are not doing it for the money but are doing it because they generally love to care for children and their families. That takes gets us full circle to the point of how physicians, pediatricians specifically, get paid.

Doctors are paid by their employers, who are paid by insurance companies, not pharmaceutical companies

There are many options for career paths once out of their 3-year residency, and each of them will have an impact on how much money a physician will take home. For example, one can choose to work for a hospital, a large multi-specialty group, or a small practice, and each of these have a different baseline for overhead costs, all which come before the pediatrician’s paycheck. As the process goes, doctors see patients, and based on the time and complexity of the care that they provide, they submit a corresponding bill for that care to a patient’s insurance company. The insurance company then pays the doctor’s employer for an accepted cost of care, usually negotiated between the two sides. From that amount, once overhead costs and staff are paid, the employer, whether it is a hospital or small practice, then pays the doctor. None of that process includes income from a pharmaceutical company.

It’s actually an infrequent occurrence to have money flow directly from a pharmaceutical company to a physician. Scenarios where this may occur is one where a physician may decide to be an expert speaker for a pharmaceutical company and be paid for speaking engagements. Alternately, some physicians choose to do research with a pharmaceutical company, and that position would also likely be paid. However, this can not be stated enough, the vast majority of pediatricians seeing patients on a day-to-day basis do not receive direct compensation by any drug company.

Every conspiracy starts somewhere – and this one is linked to the “Big Pharma” myth

So where is this conspiracy theory coming from?

Distrust of the medical establishment and fear of modern medicine (vaccines first and foremost) is too large a topic to discuss here. However, I believe this is how it started. Accusing a doctor of being paid by “Big Pharma” is an attack on the doctor when no other substantive evidence is available to support an allegation or claim of bias. For example, if a pediatrician defends the safety and efficacy of vaccines to someone who is anti-vaccine, they may be accused of being in the pockets of the companies that produce or distribute the vaccines. These claims are not supported by scientific fact or logic (i.e. fiscally responsible behavior), since purchasing and storing vaccines is such an expensive undertaking that many small practices lose money by offering them at all.

Concerned? Ethics check: does your physician sell medications direct?

Concerned? Ethics check: does your physician sell medications direct?

Of course, in the past, there was an indirect incentive for physicians to recommend certain medications from pharmaceutical companies. Prior to appropriate legislative action, physicians were offered elaborate vacations and dinners by certain pharmaceutical companies in the hopes that these doctors would recommend a certain drug over another. However, this has dramatically changed in the past several years through legislation. It is now illegal to try to influence physicians with gifts, including those once-famous pens so many of us might remember in our doctors’ offices years ago. In my company, we rarely see representatives from pharmaceutical companies and we have a policy against free lunches. Many residency programs have the same policy, and many hospitals and clinics ban solicitations of that nature entirely.

Doctors choose the most appropriate medicine for an illness or injury given the circumstances

Making decisions about which medication to use for a given illness is complicated. Antibiotic recommendations are made based on what is most certain to kill the bacteria most likely to be the cause of an infection. For other conditions, scientists develop medicines based upon the known cause of a condition. Yes, this typically gets done at a pharmaceutical company, but that is because they have the money to do so. In fact, anyone who is independently wealthy and wants to hire scientists to develop medications is free to do so!  Once a medication has been developed and studied, it doesn’t simply enter the free market – the company must go through a rigorous FDA approval process. Even after several tiers of studies are completed and FDA approval is set, doctors still rely on large panels of experts to look at all of the available evidence to decide if a medication should be recommended or not (some of this is what we reference as “peer reviewed” studies).

So when a doctor is examining a patient and needs to treat a condition, he/she considers the patient’s needs and ability to comply with their recommendations, the latest medical guidelines for that condition, and then considers the patient’s medication options, including a treatments’s effectiveness, its side effect profile and most importantly, insurance coverage for that treatment. Frequently, in pediatrics the generic version of a medication is what is typically covered. Therefore, the expensive brand name medications advertised by pharmaceutical companies on TV and on the internet are rarely prescribed as they’re much less frequently covered or accessible to these patients.

On a final note, if you are worried about a doctor profiting off of prescribed treatments, you may want to consider how you’re being provided those treatments. Is it coming from a pharmacy, in the hospital or at your local store? You have little to nothing to be concerned about in terms of doctor bias. However, i your doctor selling directly to you? If they are, you may want to dig deeper. This could be a red flag. Who profits if you see an alternate practitioner who sells you herbs, supplements or homeopathic remedies, which are not proven to be safe or effective? Probably that practitioner. That’s what we call a conflict of interest in the care of a patient, and there is an ethical code that MDs and DOs are held to that do not violate that extra layer of protection.

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Categories: Science 101 + Mythbusting

There Is No Holistic Murder Conspiracy Afoot. Seriously.

By and August 3, 2015 No Comments

For weeks now, stories have been circulating the internet about five holistic health providers who were mysteriously killed or died in untimely and undisclosed ways. Of course, the stories around them have played up the “mystery” aspect, and have had corresponding articles heavily implying that it is all a part of a vast, dark conspiracy by either “big pharma,” the FDA, or both. Here at The Scientific Parent, we rolled our collective eyes at the claim, especially as we dug into the articles.

First, to entertain that these claims might be real despite the total lack of evidence, you’re going to have to suspend disbelief. You would have to believe that the alleged entity known by conspiracy theorists as “Big Pharma” with its myriad of pharmaceutical drugs at its disposal would choose to kill these providers violently and poorly dispose of their remains. You’re would also need to believe that multiple large pharmaceutical companies, which are fierce competitors with one another, would come together as the mythical super-drug-beast known as “Big Pharma” to kill five providers whose combined work would not impact their revenues at all, removing any financial motive whatsoever.

We aim to be judgment-free on this site. Though we disagree with it, we can understand why some parents are afraid to vaccinate their children, why some parents want to share a bed with their newborn, and why parents avoid discussing difficult and essential topics with their children. But how anyone could believe this conspiracy theory? We’re raising an eyebrow of judgment. Say what?

Nevertheless,  in our Scientific Parent tradition, people have asked us this question, so we’re going to dig into the stats and the individual claims to see if there’s any evidential merit to them.

First, let’s go over the claims:

  • Five holistic providers have died mysteriously over a month and a half;
  • They are:
    • Jeff Bradstreet, MD, was a controversial provider who was under investigation by the FDA for treating children with autism with a dangerous and unapproved chemotherapy drug. His body was found in the Rocky Broad River in Chimney Rock, NC with an alleged self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Dr. Bradstreet was found dead shortly after authorities executed a search warrant on his offices in relation to his use of the unapproved drug on children.
    • Bruce Hedendal was a chiropractor with a small practice in Florida. He was found dead, at the age of 67 in his car, and police say that no foul play is suspected.
    • Baron Holt was a chiropractor with a local practice in North Carolina. His practice was low-key and though he was young at age 33, no cause of death has been released.
    • Teresa Sievers, MD provided medical care to the transgender community but used a holistic approach. She was brutally murdered in her home and authorities say her death was not random. While there have been no arrests in the case, they allege that she knew her murderer.
    • Lisa Riley, MD was an emergency room physician in Georgia with no ties to the holistic medical community. Like Dr. Teresa Sievers, police say someone known to Dr. Riley brutally murdered her, allegedly her husband. Her husband, a former boxer, was previously charged with attempted murder of his former girlfriend by shooting her in the head.

We don’t think that doctors Riley and Sievers should be considered part of the alleged big pharma murder conspiracy, since they’re both traditional doctors with little to no connections to the holistic community. Frankly we’re not quite sure how their names were associated with the conspiracy rumors in the first place. But, we warned you, this is going to take a leap of disbelief (and an utter disregard for regression analysis) to get you over the proverbial finish line.

Does this sound like an abnormal pattern of deaths? First we’d need to establish what “normal” would be. As much of holistic medicine is unregulated, it’s difficult if not impossible to get clear statistics on how many individuals are in practice and what their attrition rate is, either by death, disability, retirement, or leaving the business. However, we do have solid statistics on those type of attrition rates for traditional doctors (MDs and DOs), so we’re going to use that as our fuzzy baseline average for the holistic realm for the purposes of this article.

It may shock you to discover that traditional doctors die from murder or suicide at a much, much higher rate than the general population. We were surprised too – it seems awful, given the level of care and healing these people aim to do. Including both MDs and DOs there are currently 904,556 active primary care and specialist physicians in the US. Of those, approximately 400 will commit suicide each year. In fact, physicians kill themselves at a rate 70% higher than non-physicians. This sadly means that eight doctors commit suicide every week.

It’s a bit harder to get statistics on physicians that are murdered each year for a number of reasons (publicity, visibility, nature of the crime, investigations, etc.). But we do know that over the span of a decade the average is that approximately 15 health care providers are killed in workplace shootings each year. That’s at least one murder a month.

Dwight Conspiracy MemeWith that said, even if we consider all five individuals named in the holistic-doctor-Big Pharma-FDA murder conspiracy plot statistically using the MD-DO statistics are our baseline, their collective death rate contribution is not an anomaly. Though individually, it’s terribly tragic and sad.

In the cases of Baron Holt and Bruce Hedendal, no cause of death has been released. Nothing abnormal there – coroners don’t typically publicly release a cause of death without the next of kin’s permission unless it’s in the public interest. So not having a publicly released cause of death falls far short of “mysterious,”and more along the lines of family privacy.

When examining the circumstances around each death it seems that only Dr. Bradstreet’s family is protesting his death as something other than what is being claimed by authorities. The whole thing sounds like a tragic and awful affair. But we can understand why Dr. Bradstreet’s family views his death as suspicious, since the practitioner spent most of his career in opposition to established medical research. Considering the implications of what Dr. Bradstreet was doing – using medication unapproved in the US and illegally obtained on the black market for use on children with autism, without approval – the investigation had the potential to not only end his career, but also put him in jail for a long time. That could potentially be enough pressure to make someone emotionally break down and consider suicide as a way out, as authorities have ruled it.

We also think that if anyone was murdered by Big Pharma, there would be more stealth and cunning, and also some sort of undetectable pharmaceutical way to do it. As conspiracies go, these data points are all too inconsistent to look like a trend.

Regardless of the circumstances for these five individuals, we feel for each of them, their families and loved ones. But ultimately, we don’t think a conspiracy is at work.


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Categories: Science 101 + Mythbusting

PART 2: Can Bananas Make You Bleed to Death? Will BHT in Kids Cereal Cause Cancer? What is Chemophobia?

By May 19, 2015 2 Comments
All Natural Banana

Everything is made of chemicals, even an all-natural sun-ripened banana. Does a banana naturally include a chemical used by big pharma and a chemical that can cause your blood to stop clotting?! Image via James Kennedy. CLICK TO ENLARGE

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I addressed The Food Babe’s allegation that said if your food contains an ingredient your third grader can’t pronounce you shouldn’t eat it – and my stance on that is, then no one would ever eat an organic banana, which contains naturally-occurring phylloquine, tocopherol and palmitoleic acid, which are tongue twisters.

Today in Part 2, as we continue our BHT discussion, let’s start back at that example of our all-natural organic banana.  What if I was to tell you that the same chemical found in bananas, that has been shown to cause a 7% increase in lung cancer in non-smokers, has also been found to act as an anticoagulant in large doses and can cause bleeding issues?  Yes, it’s tocopherol again. You would need to eat 5,000 bananas in one day to reach the levels (1,000mg) that cause bleeding issues. If you eat a banana or two a day, you won’t develop bleeding issues, as the dose makes the poison.

Using that frame of reference, many research groups have tested the hypothesis that BHT contributes to cancer.   Most reports discuss BHT feeding trials in rats, and the data follow two central trends:

The first is that the tumor incidence observed in small studies is not replicated in larger studies.  In science we need our sample sizes to be considered ‘representative’ in order to be considered ‘generalizable.’  That means that we need a large sample population in order to say that the findings can be applied to the general population.  This is because small sample sizes are prone to sampling errors.  A study’s findings are problematic when you see a result in a small sample population but don’t see those same results in a larger population.  In this case we’d want to see the same patterns in both the small and larger studies, but we don’t.  But, small studies are subject to statistical noise, as a blip in the particular set of rodents makes results appear to be significant—yet they don’t repeat in a larger statistical set.

The second trend observed is what scientists refer to as a dose-response failure.  This basically means that if a small amount of a test compound causes a problem, then higher amounts should cause an equal or greater response.  It makes sense, as I said above, that the dose can make the poison.  Taken in total, there is absolutely no credible evidence that BHT causes cancer in animals, and the IRAC notes its carcinogenicity as “inconclusive”, which means nothing has been observed. Some studies in petri dishes are suggestive, but not conclusive about a BHT cancer risk.

Other BHT feeding studies in monkeys were shown to induce potent effects on the liver, resulting in physiological and cellular abnormalities.  However, these studies fed monkeys 500 mg/kg of body weight of BHT for 50 days.  That’s akin to a 200lb person eating 50 g (the weight of a tennis ball) of BHT every day for 50 days.  The average American consumes approximately 2 mg/day, or 25,000 times lower (per day) than the amount shown to induce these problems in primates.  Lung problems were observed in dogs and mice when they were given 75,000-100,000 times the human daily intake.

Of course, there are many fear mongers in the anti-additive space that don’t understand the science.  They read the headline or article title and draw a conclusion.  These interpretations are not consistent with the science, yet they spread like wildfire throughout electronic media.

Ironically, there are just as many papers that suggest preventative effects from BHT.  Of course, these are no fun for fear mongering and are also rather preliminary science, so you don’t have too many health advisers suggesting increased consumption.

Like any chemical added to food it is critical to carefully consider the benefits and risks at realistic concentrations encountered.  As I said in my previous post, it is certainly easy to read the reports on risk assessment and toxicity and become worried about possible effects, as they do seem so plausible.  However, I reiterate, that careful analysis reveals that biological effects are not observed at the levels actually consumed in the typical diet.  BHT, like most food additives, is present in vanishingly low amounts, and its benefits as a product to keep food fresh far outweigh any risks.

While I’m not a parent myself I’m very close to my niece and feel protective of her.  I have given her food with BHT in it and I’m not concerned about the long-term impacts on her health, or my own.  I also give her bananas, and I’m pretty sure she’ll be OK.


Editor’s Note 2.7.17: After this post was published Dr. Folta came under attack for alleged financial conflicts of interest. These allegations were later found to be misrepresented. In response to reader questions after the initial allegations we added an editor’s note on his articles on this site that acknowledged the claims, but reiterated the scientific accuracy of his writing for As the claims have been debunked we have removed our original editor’s note.



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National Toxicology Program. Bioassay of Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) for Possible Carcinogenicity (CAS No. 128-37-0). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Report date, 1979. Retrieved May 17, 2015.
Malkinson, A., Koski, K., Evans, W. et al. Butylated Hydroxytoluene. Exposure Is Necessary to Induce Lung Tumors in BALB Mice Treated with 3-Methylcholanthrene. Journal of Cancer Research. July 15, 1997. Retrieved May 18, 2015.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. Dose-Response Assessment. Last updated July 31, 2012. Retrieved May 18, 2015.
Matsuo, M., Mihara, K., Okuno, M., eat al. Comparative metabolism of 3,5-di-tert-butyl-4-hydroxytoluene (BHT) in mice and rats. Journal of Food Chemistry and Toxicology.1984 May;22(5):345-54
United States Food and Drug Administration. Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS) Opinion: Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT). Last updated April 18, 2013. Retrieved May 18, 2015.
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Categories: Food, Nutrition, + Infant Feeding, Science 101 + Mythbusting

PART 1: Can Bananas Make You Bleed to Death? Will BHT in Kids Cereal Cause Cancer? What is Chemophobia?

By May 18, 2015 4 Comments

The Food Babe once said that if your food contains an ingredient your third grader can’t pronounce you shouldn’t eat it.  I say that in that case no one would ever eat an organic banana, which contains the naturally occurring, yet difficult to pronounce phylloquine, tocopherol and palmitoleic acid.  These chemicals are tongue twisters for sure but naturally occurring, harmless and good for you chemicals that nature put in your sun-ripened banana.

We all share concern about the safety of food and food additives.  Scary-sounding chemical names create suspicion and fear, and with our endless exposure to information everyone seems to be an expert in deciphering just how dangerous chemicals really are. In fact, a thriving industry that capitalizes on fear of chemicals has cropped up, and of course they profit from selling supplements and organic food that are supposed to be chemical free (spoiler alert, everything is made up of chemicals).  We call this scare tactic chemophobia.

Often, this chemophobic industry focuses on food additives – chemicals that impart important properties to food nutrition, stability, or quality – as chemicals to be afraid of.  As a professor of horticultural sciences I can tell you food additives are chosen because they are safe for human consumption in the quantities used.

The Food Babe, a member of the chemophobia industry has put a common additive in her crosshairs: butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), found in everything from cereals to gum to food packaging itself.  BHT has an outstanding safety record—yet has become the target of recent commentary by scientifically dubious sources.

It may sound strange to eat a chemical that’s also used in food packaging, but what if I told you that one of those chemicals in the all-natural sun-ripened banana has been shown to increase a non-smoker’s risk of lung cancer by 7%?

 The Food Babe says that if your third grader can't pronounce an ingredient, you shouldn't eat it. Unfortunately, that means we wouldn't be able to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, that are composed of tongue-twisting, naturally-occurring chemicals.

The Food Babe says that if your third grader can’t pronounce an ingredient, you shouldn’t eat it. Unfortunately, that means we wouldn’t be able to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, that are composed of tongue-twisting, naturally-occurring chemicals.

That chemical is tocopherol and it doesn’t make your banana a dangerous carcinogen.  It just means that in large doses the small amount of tocopherol in your banana can do more harm than good, but at lower levels, it’s perfectly healthy.

BHT is simply a synthetic antioxidant.  It does the same job that all antioxidants do- it delays changes in food quality that occur from exposure to oxygen and other reactive molecules.  It is typically found as a stabilizing agent in food, but also is important in the manufacturing of cosmetics, and even has a role in rubber production.  It is most commonly encountered in food containing fats, as it is highly effective in deterring rancidity.

I can understand those that are afraid of BHT. There is a lot of research that shows the relative toxicity of BHT and when those studies are viewed in isolation they can seem reasonably alarming.

Some studies show that BHT can be toxic when consumed in large quantities used lab mice, with some examination of how the compound is metabolized in humans.  Rats and humans were fed relatively high levels to determine its biological fate—and found that while it is possible to accumulate BHT in fat tissue if high levels are consumed for days.  To reach these toxic levels you’d need to eat almost two tons of cereal in one day.  Even at these high levels, BHT is rapidly eliminated as normal consumption continues. About half is gone after a day.

Certainly it is easy to read the reports on risk assessment and toxicity and become worried about possible effects, as they seem so plausible.  However, careful analysis reveals that biological effects are not observed at the levels actually consumed in the typical diet. In tomorrow’s post, I will break down the studies and science behind BHT, and dispel some of the biggest myths surrounding this chemical compound.

Editor’s Note 2.7.17: After this post was published Dr. Folta came under attack for alleged financial conflicts of interest. These allegations were later found to be misrepresented. In response to reader questions after the initial allegations we added an editor’s note on his articles on this site that acknowledged the claims, but reiterated the scientific accuracy of his writing for As the claims have been debunked we have removed our original editor’s note.


Wikipedia. Chemophobia Entry. Retrieved May 17, 2015.
Deborah Kotz. Worried too much about chemicals? You may have chemophobia. The Boston Globe. August 20, 2013. Retrieved May 17, 2015.
EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food (ANS). Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation of butylated hydroxytoluene BHT (E 321) as a food additive. European Food Safety Commission. EFSA Journal 2012;10(3):2588. Retrieved May 17, 2015.
Wu, QJ. Xiang, YB. Yang, G. et al. Vitamin E intake and the lung cancer risk among female nonsmokers: a report from the Shanghai Women’s Health Study. International Journal of Cancer.2015 Feb 1;136(3):610-7. doi: 10.1002/ijc.29016 Retrieved May 17, 2015.
Melody M. Bromgardner. General Mills to Remove BHT From Its Cereals. Chemical and Engineering News. February 23, 2015. Retrieved May 17, 2015.
National Toxicology Program. Bioassay of Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) for Possible Carcinogenicity (CAS No. 128-37-0). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Report date, 1979. Retrieved May 17, 2015.
Sadri Hassani. Warning: Do Not Eat 1.7 Tons of Cereal A Day! The Skeptical Educator Blog. March 3, 2015. Retrieved May 17, 2015.
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Categories: Food, Nutrition, + Infant Feeding, Science 101 + Mythbusting