America’s No. 1 favorite comfort food is testing positive for some disturbing ingredients, and you won’t find them on the label. New testing confirms that chemicals in mac and cheese include a variety of phthalates, chemicals that disrupt the body’s normal hormonal function. Some are even linked to certain cancers.
But is it time to panic and ditch boxed mac and cheese and its powdery cheese mix packets? Well, I can’t say that I recommend that type of gluten-heavy processed food in the first place. But if you are still on the fence about chemicals in mac and cheese, read on for more info.
Phthalates are the go-to, toxic chemicals used to soften and increase the flexibility of vinyl. Common in synthetic scents, vinyl flooring, mini-blinds and shampoo, soap and makeup, air fresheners and scented candles, phthalates also infiltrate the food system in many ways that go far beyond plastic wrap. They don’t call it the “everywhere chemical” for nothing. (1)
Perhaps what’s most shocking about this recent chemicals-in-mac-and-cheese report, commissioned by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging, is that even some organic mac and cheese products contain these endocrine disruptors. And it begs the question, why is the Food and Drug Administration still allowing food-contact use in the U.S. when many European countries banned phthalates in food and moved on to readily available, safer alternatives?
Luckily, I’ve got a great mac and cheese alternative, but first, more on the report …
Chemicals in Mac and Cheese
The coalition sent 30 U.S. purchased, unopened mac and cheese packages to an independent lab. Nine of those included products from the market leader in packaged mac and cheese. The report did not name all of the brands in the study, but focused on this particular cheese product because researchers recently identified diary as the No. 1 food source of phthalates.
Here are the major takeaways of the chemicals-in-mac-and-cheese testing:
- These packaged mac and cheese products are laden with phthalates.
- Lab testing confirmed 10 different phthalates in the samples.
- One single product even tested positive for six different phthalates.
- 89 percent of the market-leading products tested contained phthalates.
- Phthalates levels were about four times higher in macaroni and cheese powder compared to cheese in other forms, like natural cheese in block form.
- All 10 cheese powders contained toxic DEHP, one of the most harmful phthalates that’s banned in countries around the world.
- DEHP accounted for nearly 60 percent of all phthalates found in the cheese product items that were tested. (2)
The eye-opening report highlights the need for food manufacturers to test products for phthalate contamination — and figure out how to get it out of the food system.
Phthalates are ubiquitous in the dairy products we use. They can migrate into food at several points between the field and your plate, including during processing, packaging and prep. Think about dairy in general. There are lots of plastic tubes used to harvest the cow’s milk. Phthalate contamination in food can come from:
- Inks on packaging
- Tubing & hoses
- Plastics & gloves
- Adhesives, seals & gaskets
Dangers of Chemicals in Mac and Cheese
Phthalates do the most damage when pregnant women and young children are exposed in certain amounts during critical windows of development. And it doesn’t take a lot. Our delicate hormones operate in the parts per billion range, and many exposures are powerful enough to interfere with that.
For most Americans, the diet is the single biggest source of phthalates. Researchers looked at cheese because one review study identified dairy as the largest source of food-based phthalate exposure. (3)
This is significant, since U.S. scientists estimate 725,000 American women of childbearing age could be exposed to phthalates at levels that could disrupt healthy development of their babies. (4) According to Charlotte Brody, RN, National Director of Healthy Babies Bright Futures:
Studies repeatedly show that these endocrine-disruptors may harm developing brains. Scientists say there are no known safe levels of phthalates for vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and young children.
Here are some of the health risks associated with phthalate exposure:
- Abnormal thyroid function
- Developmental problems
- Testicular cancer
- Abnormal sperm function
- Unhealthy sex hormone function
- Abnormal infant sex hormones
- Endometriosis (5)
- Heart disease & diabetes (6)
Phthalates were banned from children’s teething rings a decade ago, yet the FDA still allowed the contamination to take place in food. That’s despite a petition from environmental and food safety groups urging FDA to get phthalates out of food processing and packaging.
These chemicals are still legal in food even though scientists show their testosterone-blocking properties. This actually impacts the male fetus’ reproductive organ development, which can lead to cascading effects for decades into his life. A doctor interviewed by the New York Times says these hormonal changes can lead to “changes in the area of the brain that are important for sex differences between men and women.” (7)
The Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging says the market leader agreed to review the test results.
Chemicals in Mac and Cheese: Industry Pushback
There are a few things to note about this report. One, as some media outlets have pointed out, it’s not a peer-reviewed study published in a scientific journal.
An industry spokesperson also told USA Today the chemicals in mac and cheese are 1,000 times lower than levels considered acceptable by scientific authorities. Still, I try to follow the precautionary principle, especially when it comes to hormone disruptors. Beyond that, I avoid ultra-processed foods as much as possible. While there are dozens of studies showing links between phthalates and disease, it could take ten or more years until we can prove it without a doubt. (Think about the parallel with tobacco cigarettes and lung cancer, for example.)
This report does, however, highlight the need to get plasticizing chemicals out of the food system.
How to Avoid Chemicals in Mac and Cheese & Beyond
Phthalates are detected in the urine of most Americans, so until meaningful changes are made in food manufacturing, it’s going to be impossible to avoid all exposures. But there are major things you can do to drastically lower your exposure to not just chemicals in mac and cheese, but phthalates lurking elsewhere, too.
Avoid these things to reduce exposure:
- Avoid processed foods as much as possible. If you’re craving comfort food, try my cauliflower mac and cheese recipe to avoid those shady powdered cheese mixes.
- Eat a more organic, plant-based diet. Phthalates levels are higher in animal-derived foods products. (8)
- Avoid artificial fragrances. Choose unscented instead or use appropriate organic, therapeutic-grade pure essential oils
- Avoid air freshener sprays, plug-ins and melts.
- Stop burning scented candles. Choose beeswax instead.
- Avoid storing or heating your foods and drinks in plastic. Use glass or food-grade stainless steel instead.
- Beware of the dangers of fracking. Phthalate contamination is documented through fracking wastewater spills, which are common. Some even use fracking wastewater for food irrigation! (9, 10)
Final Thoughts on Chemicals in Mac and Cheese
- The Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging commissioned independent testing to identify potential chemicals in mac and cheese.
- Results from the independent lab show 29 of the 30 samples contained industrial phthalate chemicals.
- Phthalates are most damaging to unborn babies in the women and young children during critical windows of development.
- Exposure can cause abnormal sex organ and hormone development, resulting in abnormal sperm, infertility, changes in sexual expression, cancer, asthma and more.
- This is just another reminder to avoid processed foods whenever possible.
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