Common food preservative could make flu vaccine less effective

A preservative commonly used to increase the shelf life of food products may weaken the body’s immune defense against influenza, according to scientists from Michigan State University.

A preservative found in meats and other common foods has been shown to reduce the effectiveness of the flu vaccineAfrica Studio | Shutterstock

The team found that when vaccinated mice were given food containing tert-butylhydroquinone (tBHQ), they took three days longer to fight off the flu, compared with mice that were not given the preservative.

The findings, which have not yet been published, were recently presented at the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics annual meeting in Orlando, Florida.

The tBHQ additive is an aromatic organic compound that helps to stabilize animal fats and unsaturated vegetable oils. It has previously been linked to a rise in food allergies.

Food manufacturers often use it to increase the shelf-life of products ranging from frozen meats to cooking oils, crackers and fried foods. However, these companies are not required to list the ingredient on food packaging, so it is unclear how much of tBHQ people are exposed to and “hard to know everything it’s in,” says study author Robert Freeborn.

The researchers found that tBHQ exposure appeared to make the flu vaccine less effective by suppressing the function of T cells, helper and killer T cells, thereby increasing the likelihood of infection fully setting in and more severe symptoms developing.

Furthermore, when the team later re-infected the animals with a different, but related flu strain, those that were fed a tBHQ diet suffered a longer-lasting illness.

This suggests that tBHQ impaired the immune system’s "memory response" that usually fights off a second infection. Given that this memory response is key to how a vaccine works, its impairment could potentially make the influenza vaccine less effective.

Scientists say the findings may help explain why seasonal flu continues to pose a such a major health threat, killing an estimated 290,000-650,000 people globally each year.

However, Freeborn stresses how important it is that people still protect against the flu by ensuring they receive a yearly flu shot; although people can still contract the infection following the shot, vaccination significantly decreases the severity and length of infection.

Next, the team plans to build on the findings by using blood samples taken from humans to further investigate the effects that tBHQ exerts on T cell activity.

Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally has a Bachelor's Degree in Biomedical Sciences (B.Sc.). She is a specialist in reviewing and summarising the latest findings across all areas of medicine covered in major, high-impact, world-leading international medical journals, international press conferences and bulletins from governmental agencies and regulatory bodies. At News-Medical, Sally generates daily news features, life science articles and interview coverage.


Please use one of the following formats to cite this article in your essay, paper or report:

  • APA

    Robertson, Sally. (2019, June 20). Common food preservative could make flu vaccine less effective. News-Medical. Retrieved on December 11, 2019 from

  • MLA

    Robertson, Sally. "Common food preservative could make flu vaccine less effective". News-Medical. 11 December 2019. <>.

  • Chicago

    Robertson, Sally. "Common food preservative could make flu vaccine less effective". News-Medical. (accessed December 11, 2019).

  • Harvard

    Robertson, Sally. 2019. Common food preservative could make flu vaccine less effective. News-Medical, viewed 11 December 2019,


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News-Medical.Net.
Post a new comment