Study: Substance Added to Food Can Worsen the Flu

Category: Health


Unlocking Word Meanings

Read the following words/expressions found in today’s article.

  1. aggravate / ˈægrəˌveɪt / (v) – to make something worse

    Eating fast food every day aggravated his illness.

  2. preservative / prɪˈzɚvətɪv / (n) – something used to make food last longer

    A lot of food items sold in groceries contain preservatives.

  3. efficacy / ˈɛfɪkəsi / (n) – the ability to cause an ideal result

    A group of doctors conducted an experiment to prove the treatment’s efficacy.

  4. exhibit / ɪgˈzɪb ɪt / (v) – to show or display something

    The school nurse allowed me to go home after I exhibited signs of fever.

  5. ward off (someone/something) / wɔrd ɔf / (phrasal) – to prevent someone or something from causing harm

    She regularly takes vitamin C to ward off colds.


Read the text below.

Scientists from the Michigan State University discovered that a common substance added to food can aggravate flu symptoms.

The substance is called tert-butylhydroquinone [tert-BYOO-til-HAHY-droh-kwi-NOHN] (TBHQ). It is a preservative usually found in processed food, frozen meat, and cooking oil.

In addition to making the flu worse, TBHQ can lessen the efficacy of flu shots, which are vaccines that strengthen the immune system to fight against the flu. According to the scientists, the findings can explain why the flu remains to be a major cause of death around the world.

To obtain these findings, the scientists conducted an experiment using mice. They gave the animals flu shots and fed them with food containing TBHQ. After some time, the mice exhibited slow recovery from the flu and lost weight.

Findings showed that the mice displayed poor health because TBHQ slowed down two types of cells that work with the immune system in warding off diseases. The first type, called the “helper T cells,” prompts other cells to fight viruses that have entered the body. The second type, known as the “killer T cells,” actively identifies infected cells and destroys them.

How TBHQ exactly triggers flu symptoms is still unknown. Nevertheless, the scientists speculate that the substance stimulates proteins inside the body that suppress the helper and killer T cells.

Robert Freeborn, one of the scientists, said that it is difficult to tell if one is consuming TBHQ as the substance is not always indicated on ingredient lists. Because of this,  Freeborn advises people to limit their exposure to TBHQ by making better food choices, such as adopting a low-fat diet and eating less processed food.

Viewpoint Discussion

Enjoy a discussion with your tutor.

Discussion A

• Do you think making better food choices is enough to limit one’s exposure to TBHQ? Why or why not?
• Aside from the flu, what other illnesses do you think should the scientists examine? Why?

Discussion B

• In your opinion, what is the importance of having a strong immune system?
• What habits do you think can strengthen one’s immune system?