Just How Unhealthy Are Cheez-Its? A Controversial Food Preservative Hides in the Crackers

Bianca Piazza - Author

Dec. 15 2023, Published 4:17 p.m. ET

The Gist:

  • Cheez-It baked snack crackers have been a hit for over a century.
  • Though they're "made with real cheese," ingredients like food preservative TBHQ, high levels of sodium, and enriched flour make them fairly unhealthy.
  • A 2021 study found that TBHQ can harm the immune system, specifically immune cell proteins.
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Those crunchy, orange, Kellogg’s-owned 1-inch squares have become a staple of salty American snacking. With a tangy cheese flavor and a light dusting of salt, Cheez-Its taste pretty darn good. Around since 1921, Cheez-It offers a myriad of flavors, including Pepper Jack and Extra Toasty, and varieties like Grooves and Snap'd.

As much as your appetite may "Want it. Need it. Cheez-It," your body is surely begging you to eat something that grows out of the earth. ("Anything green, PLEASE!") So, are Cheez-It's bad for you? The overwhelming ingredient list longer than a CVS receipt is certainly a tell.

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Photo of two hands reaching for Cheez-It crackers and slices of cheese on plates and wooden boards.
Source: cheezit/Instagram

Cheez-Its aren't good for you. Let's explore the bad ingredients.

Similarly to Cheetos, the Cheez-It box is stamped with a misleading claim: "Made with 100% real cheese." It leads us to believe, or at least imagine, that the brand is simply baking tiny slices of fresh cheddar — which we at Green Matters don't typically applaud anyway, as the dairy industry's immense environmental impact is just one of the reasons we aim to encourage a vegan lifestyle.

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This is obviously not the case. A quick trip to the original box shows that "cheese made with skim milk" sits about halfway down the ingredient list. So, what's all the other junk?

According to a 2021 Business Insider article, Cheez-Its and Pop-Tarts contain a harmful food preservative that may wreak havoc on the immune system. Goody!

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The Environmental Working Group study found that preservative tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) can affect immune cell proteins.

"The antioxidant preservative tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) showed activity both in ToxCast assays and in classical immunological assays, suggesting that it may affect the immune response in people," the study reads.

The researchers "observed that food colorant FD&C Red 3, antioxidant preservative TBHQ, and perfluoroundecanoic acid all showed activity towards multiple immune-related gene targets."

According to Healthline, the FDA ensures that TBHQ doesn't "account for more than 0.02 percent of the oils in a food," as higher levels may not be safe for consumption.

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TBHQ has been linked to tumors in rats, "vision disturbances" in people, and "liver enlargement, neurotoxic effects, convulsions, and paralysis" in other lab animals, as per Healthline.

Plus, the Feingold Association of the United States, which offers "proven dietary solutions to behavior, learning, and health problems," advises that people with ADHD or other behavioral issues avoid TBHQ, BHA, and BHT.

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Problems arose when a Facebook post spread like wildfire back in 2016, claiming that TBHQ is created from butane, a flammable hydrocarbon gas. Cheez-It was quick to debunk this.

"TBHQ is a preservative used to retain flavor and freshness of our foods. It will always be labeled within the ingredient list," the brand tweeted. "The safety of our foods is of utmost importance to us. TBHQ is not butane."

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High sodium levels and enriched flour are a few more unhealthy Cheez-It ingredients.

As pointed out by protein powder brand Myprotein, Cheez-Its are decent in the calorie department, but are loaded with sodium, carbs, and saturated fats.

Myprotein wrote that foods like Cheez-Its are "high in sodium, which can leave you feeling dehydrated and craving more of the same snacks!"

According to the FDA, Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that adults consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. Just 27 crackers contains 230 milligrams. We all know how quickly 27 crackers can become 67 crackers.

A high sodium diet is associated with loss of calcium, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke, as per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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Additionally, enriched flour — aka the first ingredient in original Cheez-Its — is processed and not nearly as healthy as whole wheat flour. The processing and refining strips flour of its natural "20 essential nutrients," according to organic supplement brand Global Healing, and usually just five additives are put back in: iron, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and folic acid.

Global Healing compared consuming enriched flour to "eating pure sugar and popping a multivitamin."

Ultimately, Cheez-Its are just another orange-hued American junk food. Craving something orange? Eat an actual orange.

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