Common food additive may make the flu vaccine less effective

food additivesCC: Jess Ess at Unsplash

Food additives are everywhere, and you don’t need to eat processed foods to encounter them. From frozen fish through to convenience meals, they’re often necessary for holding food together. According to recent research, food additives may make the flu vaccine less effective. So where do these additives exist? And how do we know they affect the flu vaccine?

Which food additives were analyzed?

One specific food additive was analyzed: tert-Butylhydroquinone (tBHQ). It’s useful for stabilizing fats in certain foods. For example, frozen oily fish. In fact, it’s used in many products where animal fats are present. It’s also a common additive in vegetable oils and it comes with the number E319.

Overall, tBHQ exists to extend the storage life of products. You may want to look for the number E319 on your food packaging. However, United States laws don’t require food manufacturers to disclose E319 on food packets.

Why do they make the flu vaccine less effective?

The study in question focused on mice that were exposed to the flu virus. There were two groups of mice, one that had consumed tBHQ and one that hadn’t.

The mice that had been exposed to tBHQ took three days longer to recover from the flu than those that didn’t. Unfortunately, while we know that tBHQ may prolong flu recovery, we don’t know why. One theory is that increases the activity of an immune system protein called Nrf2, which regulates the pathways that decrease inflammation. Although too much inflammation is a bad thing, it’s necessary to have a small amount to combat viruses. In the absence of correct inflammation levels, combatting the flu could become challenging. Theoretically, this could also interfere with the body’s ability to adapt to the flu vaccine as required.

How can you avoid eating food additives?

Many people worry about food additives in all forms. Realistically, tBHQ is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the supposed harms of e-numbers. Over the last two decades, parents have begun scrutinizing what their children eat on the basis that e-numbers induce hyperactivity. Those who eat a vegan diet can identify which products are okay for them to eat based on the absence of animal-derived e-numbers. However, as one nutritionist was bold enough to identify in 2010, not all e-numbers are bad for you and some are even good.

However, if you do wish to avoid eating food additives, your efforts could translate to a healthier diet overall. Your primary efforts should come from avoiding processed foods and eating items that are as fresh as possible. When they don’t require food additives to extend their shelf life, you’re more likely to avoid them altogether. Additionally, this usually means eating fewer high GI carbohydrates, less fat, and more antioxidants.

For now, it’s possibly not worth worrying too much about the effects of certain food additives on your flu vaccine. It’s unlikely they’ll render it entirely useless, but still wise to eat a better diet.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.