The Chemistry of How Processed Foods Affect the Body


Upon doing research for my Chemistry of … project I have found information that will effect me for the rest of my life. With each bite that I take I now know some of the things I am eating and how it can effect my body, not just presently, but in the future as well. I chose to research 3 common preservatives that the average American probably consumes on a daily basis. These three chemicals include: Benzoic Acid, MSG (monosodium glutamate) and BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) and it's very close cousin BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene). I chose this topic because I am very health conscious and truly believe that if you put the best into your body that you will be at your best both mentally and physically. Every single day millions of people are diagnosed with cancer, receive news that they have a tumor and so many other negative diagnoses that may or may not be caused by the chemicals we use to preserve food.

Composition of ...

Benzoic Acid:

    • C₇H₆O₂


    • C₁₁H₁₆O₂


    • C₅H₈NO₄Na

Main Chemicals, Compounds, Components

Benzoic Acid:

This substance is originally derived from tree resin, and is sometimes known as gum benzoin. It is a colorless crystalline solid.


Also known as Monosodium Glutamate, MSG is the Sodium Salt of Glutamic Acid. When one sees the word “Glutamic” we can assume that the chemical glutamate is found within that substance, and glutamate is a non-essential antioxidant, which means the body produces it. If you are unfamiliar with the term antioxidant, it is a substance that tries to stop oxidation in our bodies that may be destructive. Now as we get into the more complicated part of food digestion, you may not know what a term such as oxidation. Well, oxidation in the body is the process of damaging cell membrane, DNA, cellular proteins and lipids. As oxygen is metabolized it creates free radicals, which are molecules with only one electron, always trying to steal electrons from other molecules, which is what creates the damage.


BHA consists of two isomeric organic compounds. An isomeric compound is a compound with the exact same molecular formula as another compound, with the exact same number of atoms for each element, although the elements of the compound are in a different order/arrangement than the other isomeric compound. While BHT is a lipophilic organic compound, deriving from the chemical phenol, and has antioxidant properties and preserves food smell, color and flavor. This shows that while BHA and BHT are very similar they are different compounds.

Chemistry's Role


As I previously mentioned, MSG contains glutamate, which is a substance used to enhance flavor, and when ingested, acts as a way of “exciting” neurotransmitters and can destroy nerve cells with too much excitement (or too much glutamate). After such research glutamate was named an “Excitotoxin.” However, scientists have only researched these effects on test animals. It has also been found that with high amounts of glutamate the antioxidant is able to cross the blood- brain barrier causing neurons to swell or be injured; aka MSG sensitivity. It is unknown why this happens. In addition, with large doses of MSG, over half of individuals will experience an asthma attack, although there is not enough research on this to know why asthma attacks are a result of intake. Scientists have also researched whether MSG can result in weight gain or metabolic disorder. There are not enough studies done on humans that show MSG is the cause, although when rats were injected with MSG they became obese. Authority nutrition states an important point when choosing to eat healthy foods when they say: “MSG is generally found in processed, low-quality foods, stuff that you shouldn’t be eating much of anyway.” The reason why these free radical glutamate in MSG are harmful is because free radicals have one electron and want to find the other, once they steal one from something else then that atom turns into a greedy electron-seeking atom and creates a chain reaction that can result in neurological damage as well as damage to the immune system cells.

Benzoic Acid:

Sometimes when the chemical reacts with Vitamin C it can create benzene, a cancer causing carcinogen


The oxidative behavior of BHA may result in a carcinogenic substance or tumor. Some people also have trouble digesting BHA and this can lead to behavioral and health changes. There is also evidence that BHA can build up in the body over periods of time. BHA and BHT can work to either promote carcinogens (which has not been thoroughly researched) but may intercept free radicals and activate the detoxifying enzymes in the body ultimately battling some carcinogens. In an experiment where both a male and female rat were given BHA, they both showed evidence of enhancement (moved along the creation) of carcinogenesis in the bladder and forestomach and inhibited (stopped) carcinogenesis in the liver. In another experiment hamsters were given BHT and had an increase in liver tumors but decrease in bladder tumor but had no effect of carcinogenesis in the forestomach, as BHA did.

Background Research

Benzoic Acid is a synthetic compound used to mostly preserve meat and milk products, but is also used in low-sugar products, drinks and cereals. Results of ingesting these chemicals may includes: headaches, stomach upset, asthma attacks and hyperactivity in children. Benzoic Acid is listed on food labels. BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) is a synthetic compound, meaning it is not naturally occurring in nature. BHA is made in a lab by combining two isomeric compounds: 2-tert-butyl-4-hydroxyanisole and 3-tert-butyl-4-hydroxyanisole. BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene) is a close cousin of BHA, serving similar purposes, and is created by combining 4-methoxyphenol and isobutylene . They are found in cereals, sausages, dried meats, crackers, and various foods with added fats. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer consider this a possible human carcinogen. These compounds are on food labels and are often accompanied by "added for freshness." Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is an added flavor enhancer and is found in many processed foods such as dressing, condiments, seasonings, bouillons, and snacks such as chips. It is made of water sodium and glutamate. Some immediate health concerns can include tightening in the chest, a burning sensation in the chest and forearms, and headaches. This chemical is also listed on food labels. MSG is a man made (synthetic) compound. It was originally extracted from naturally occurring MSG in seaweed, it is now made from the fermentation of sugar beets, starch, molasses or sugar cane.


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      1. what are processed foods
      2. often high in artificial sugars
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      1. top 15 preservatives
      1. most preservatives used in foods summary
      1. slideshow on history and overview
      1. Why BHT and BHA are added to our foods
      2. Are they safe?
      3. What they are
      1. Composition of Butylated Hydroxyanisole
      1. Why Benzoic Acid is harmful to the body
      1. What BHA is
      1. What Benzoic Acid is
      1. What MSG is
      1. Harmful effects of MSG
      1. Oxidation and antioxidant processes and definitions
      1. What BHA is and why it could be harmful to the body
      1. BHA and BHTs ability to fight cancer and free radicals in the body
      1. Research of BHA and BHT of rats
      1. Toxicity and overview of BHA and BHT
      1. MSG and it's construction
      1. Overview of MSG and how it is synthetically made
      1. Chemical structures of BHA and BHT

About the Author

Wynter Dooley is a Junior at Billings Senior High School. She is an ambitious track athlete and enjoys learning in all aspects. She plans to further her education at the collegiate level in engineering, design or a science of some kind. She strives to enjoy everyday with a positive and welcoming attitude.