There is an ingredient in a number of common foods that can make the body more susceptible to the flu.
The emerging scientific work so far only applies to laboratory mice, which means that it still has a long way to go before we know if people will be affected in the same way. But if science shows it, it can affect how food companies work, and it can give health experts a new understanding of how people become more susceptible to the flu.
Tert-butyl hydroquinone (TBHQ) is an aromatic organic compound that food companies often use as preservatives for unsaturated vegetable oils and many animal fats. Food companies have found it useful to extend the shelf life of products such as those in frozen meat, crackers and fried foods.
Scientists at Michigan State University report that when laboratory mice with TBHQ were exposed to the influenza virus in their bodies, the chemical slows down important infection-fighting T cells. This in turn increases the chance that the disease will strike completely.
The researchers' main hypothesis is that TBHQ triggers these effects by triggering a number of proteins in the body that are known to suppress the immune system, according to study author and Michigan State PhD student Robert Freeborn
The research has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The work was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 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 considered it safe for human consumption. The FDA determines that the TBHQ levels do not exceed 0.02% of the oil or fat content of the food in which it is used.
Some scientists have shown that exposure to high levels and long-term exposure to high levels of TBHQ can have adverse health effects in laboratory animals; in particular, it may increase the risk of stomach tumors. In 1986 a Dutch scientist, Gerrit J. Van Esch, performed an overview of the available science on TBHQ and discovered that people normally eat far below the level of TBHQ that is needed before the negative side effects are noted in animal studies.
All the new information that the team of researchers gains could ultimately contribute to the fight against the flu. Currently, people are encouraged to get a flu shot every year to help protect against the spread of the infection. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 650,000 people worldwide die each year as a result, including about 60,000 of them in the US alone.