Oh, mac and cheese, what's happened to you? You were the most comfortable of comfort foods. So reliable. So innocent. So simple with not too many ingredients. Just macaroni and cheese…and phthalates.
What the phthalates?! I did not order that with my mac and cheese.
It turns out that mac and cheese, in the words of Britney Spears, is “not that innocent.” Based on some testing done by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging, if you are eating the cheese powder for macaroni and cheese, you may be eating phthalates. They bought 30 cheese product items from retail stores in the United States, including 10 different varieties of macaroni and cheese with dry cheese powder, five different types of sliced processed cheeses, and 15 varieties of natural cheese such as hard, shredded, string and cottage. They then shipped this whole cheese-heavy shopping haul in its original packaging to VITO (the Flemish Institute for Technological Research) an independent laboratory in Belgium. Rather than simply eat the cheese, VITO tested all of these products and found significant levels of phthalates in all but one of the products. Oh, cheese. What's even more distressing was that the average level of phthalates in macaroni and cheese powder was about twice the levels in processed cheese and four times the levels in natural cheese. Cheese Louise.
What exactly are phthalates besides a word that is difficult to pronounce without spitting? They're a group of chemicals that help soften plastics…and they're all around us. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website lists many household products that use phthalates such “toys, vinyl flooring and wall covering, detergents, lubricating oils, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, blood bags and tubing, and personal care products, such as nail polish, hair sprays, aftershave lotions, soaps, shampoos, perfumes and other fragrance preparation.” The most commonly found phthalate in the VITO testing was DEHP, otherwise known as Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, followed by DEP (Diethyl phthalate), BBP (Benzyl butyl phthalate), and DINP (Diisononyl phthalate). Try saying that five times quickly instead of “she sells seashells by the seashore.”
What's the harm in eating phthalates (i.e., something in your kitchen floor)? Take a look at the July 2014 report to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission from the Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel on Phthalates and Phthalate Alternatives. A major concern is that phthalates may interfere with the production of testosterone. Decreasing testosterone doesn't just inhibit chest bumping. Studies have shown that phthalates may substantially affect the reproductive tracts of male rats, such as causing malformations and infertility. Scientific evidence suggests that similar problems may occur in male humans, such as poor semen quality, testicular cancer, penis malformations, testicular abnormalities and reduced fertility. Thus, exposing pregnant women and male children to phthalates may be particularly risky.
Scientific studies have also suggested links between phthalate exposure and other health problems. For example, a systematic review published in Environmental Pollution found associations between phthalate exposure and the development of childhood asthma. A study in Pediatric Research showed an association between exposure to certain phthalates while in the womb and subsequent higher body mass index (BMI) and development of obesity. And for those of you still blaming vaccines for autism, this review article in Environmental Research covers various studies that have suggested a connection between phthalate exposure and autism.
Concerns about health risks have led to varying degrees of phthalate bans throughout the world. A PBS article from 2008 indicated that the European Union, Japan, Mexico, Argentina and other countries have banned phthalates. The article continued to say that as a result, “China, which makes 85% of the world's toys, has developed two manufacturing lines, one for the European market and the other like-minded nations that ban phthalates, and another one for the United States and dozens of mostly developing and third-world countries that don't restrict them.” Since then the U.S. has separated itself from “developing and third-world countries” a bit by putting some more restrictions on phthalates, but still not to the degree of the European Union, Japan and other countries.
Thus, phthalates are appearing in macaroni and cheese not because manufacturers are deliberately adding phthalates to the mix (such as “try the new bacon bits and phthalates macaroni and cheese recipe”). Rather, pthalates are in the plastic material involved in processing (e.g., tubes and conveyor belts), packaging, and labeling the food. Close contact with this plastic allows the chemicals to then leech into the food. Since phthalates tend to bind to fat, fattier food, like…unfortunately..cheese, may have higher levels of phthalates. Just remember, fat is phat for phthalates.
Of course, mac n' cheese is not the only food with phthalates. Many foods that are processed or packaged in plastic may contain these chemicals. However, finding them in macaroni and cheese raises this problem to a whole different level of alarm. Kraft Macaroni Cheese is ranked number 7 in Ranker's “The Crap You Eat in College.” Rebecca Orchant placed Mac and Cheese at number 3 in her “The 25 Best Comfort Foods, In Order” for the HuffPost. Dan Myers for Fox News said that more than 1 million boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese are sold each day. Macaroni and cheese has so many qualities that make it easy to consume. It has warm cheese. The boxed variety is cheap and easy to cook. It also has warm cheese. It is appropriate for any meal. And by the way, it has warm cheese.
How do you avoid phthalates in your macaroni and cheese, besides move to Europe or Japan? One way is to stay away from processed macaroni and cheese and go as natural as you can. Melt real natural cheese instead of using the cheese powder. Also, lower fat cheese may have lower levels of phthalates. The other option is to avoid mac n' cheese altogether, but this may be a completely unacceptable option.