BHT Found to Be Naturally
Produced in Phytoplankton

Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) has been used as an FDA-approved antioxidant food additive for many decades. Yet it has always been thought of as synthetic, and there’s the rub. A lot of people don’t like synthetic things, especially in their food, and BHT has been shouted down as a toxic substance. Yet BHT has a lot going for it, including its ability to knock out flareups of certain lipid-enveloped viruses such as Herpes and CMV, and to work in tandem with butyric acid, which together are known to play significant roles in the welfare of intestinal mucosa.

The surprise is that a recent paper has found BHT to be made in fresh water phytoplankton, and phytoplankton are generally regarded as innocent and health promoting.1 While they are so small that they cannot be seen individually by the unaided human eye, phytoplankton rule the planet in the sense that they are responsible for half of the total oxygen produced by all plant life. Moreover, their cumulative carbon compounds energy fixation is the basis for the vast majority of oceanic and also many freshwater food webs. One of the more remarkable food chains in the ocean—extraordinary because of the small number of links—is that of phytoplankton fed on by krill (a type of shrimp) fed on by baleen whales. Well, if saltwater phytoplankton are found to produce BHT, then the whales would be feeding on natural BHT. How could it be bad for you?

In the study, scientists determined that four freshwater phytoplankton, including a green alga (Botryococcus braunii Kütz.) and three cyanobacteria [Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii (Wollosz.) Seenaya et Sabba Raju, Microcystis aeruginosa (Kütz.) and Oscillatoria sp.] were able to produce this compound. True to its synthetic properties, natural BHT exhibited various degrees of antioxidative properties in all the studied species by two assays. Of note, the highest antioxidant activity was observed in the crude extracts of M. aeruginosa and B. braunii. These displayed a similar activity to synthetic BHT. Gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy analysis of purified fractions revealed that the active compound was identical to synthetic BHT.

Amazingly, the confirmation that BHT is naturally produced in the four studied freshwater phytoplankton suggests that these species are potential source for producing natural BHT. BHT aquafarming, anyone?

1. Babu B, Wu JT. Production of natural butylated hydroxytoluene as an antioxidant by freshwater phytoplankton. J Phycol 2008; 44(6):1447–54.

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