If you’re a parent whose child loves macaroni and cheese (and truly, it’s the rare child who doesn’t), you’ve most likely seen the NYT media blitz on chemicals found in popular, boxed mac-n-cheese brands sold in grocery stores. I’m going to break it down quick and simple. Here we go….

  1. The chemical detected in the mac and cheese were are called phthalates. Phthalates aren’t an added ingredient that companies are purposely using in their products. This isn’t an artificial ingredient, per se. It also isn’t something you avoid in your food when buying organic foods.
  2. Phthalates are chemical toxins that are used to make rigid plastics more flexible and less breakable. These plastics are used in processing plants and conveyor systems that our food and other ingredients travel THROUGH while being preserved and packaged. The phthalates can then leak from the plastics (tubing, conveyor belts, machinery) INTO our food or ingredients.
  3. Research links phthalates to possible genital abnormalities at birth and disruption of hormones, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. Phthalate exposures during pregnancy can cause changes in estrogen and testosterone levels in fetuses. There isn’t a known “safe” amount of phthalates for our diets. So when we can reduce our exposure to them, we should.
  4. Almost all dairy products you consume contain phthalates. So it’s not just the mac-n-cheese that’s exposing us to phthalates. Milk, cheese, cottage cheese, string cheese, ice cream and other foods…any milk product contains them. Phthalates piggyback into our food and are stored in fat. That’s one of the reasons it’s smarter to drink low-fat dairy products over high-fat ones.
  5. We don’t know yet which brands the report surveyed and this work wasn’t published in a peer-reviewed journal. Some media outlets are reporting Kraft was included but I was unable to unearth which brands and what levels were found. To be safe, I’d assume most macaroni and cheese prepared products contain some level of phthalates because they all require processing.
  6. Buying organic mac-n-cheese isn’t saving you from phthalate exposure. Remember anything that’s been processed through tubing or machinery can have phthalates. Phthalates can also leave plastic products in our house (plastic food containers, plastic dishware, plastic surfaces) and enter our food, especially when heated. So the less we use plastic to store or transport our food the better!
  7. We don’t actually know what level of phthalates are safe for consumption so as the science and understanding of the risks evolve it’s best to think on diminishing exposures.

Also, read more about the other challenges (high fat, low fiber, too many nitrates, high sugar, high salt) of processed foods in this piece in JAMA Pediatrics: Processed Food-The Experiment That Failed. I love this quote, “Given these outcomes, the conclusion is clear: processed food is an experiment that failed. Processed food is high in sugar and low in fiber. There’s only one recourse—real food, which is low in sugar and high in fiber. Real food is what the world ate for millennia without risk of long-term disease. But that’s not what the 10 biggest food corporations are selling.”  I’m also including a rebuttal to this opinion piece published this week here, too (it’s about motherhood and practical advice).

My bottom line: enjoy everything in moderation & offer your children lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole foods. We gotta eat real food! Eat low-fat dairy products over high-fat ones. Don’t heat food in plastic containers. Here’s a podcast where Dr Sheela Sathyanarayna’s explains more:

I agree with the New York Times suggestions, created with Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayna’s advice:

If you’re pregnant or planning a pregnancy, have young children or want to reduce your family’s exposure to phthalates for other reasons, here are some suggestions:

■ Eat more whole fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, and minimize the amount of processed food you eat. “Avoid anything you find in a box that could sit around for many years,” said Dr. Sathyanarayana. “There are so many steps to get to that boxed product, and every step along the way, there’s usually plastic involved.”

■ Choose low-fat dairy products such as skim milk and low fat cheeses, and avoid high-fat foods such as cream, whole milk and fatty meats. “We know these more toxic phthalates accumulate in fat,” Dr. Sathyanarayana said.

■ Use glass, stainless steel, ceramic or wood to hold and store food instead of plastics, Dr. Sathyanarayana suggested, and if you are using sippy cups and baby bottles made from hard polycarbonate plastics, don’t put hot liquids in them.

■ Wash your hands frequently, and take your shoes off at home to avoid household dust that may be contaminated with chemical traces. Vacuum and wet dust frequently.
■ Food isn’t the only source of exposure. Many fragrances contain phthalates, Dr. Patisaul said, so choose unscented personal care products, from cleansers, moisturizers and cosmetics to shampoo and detergents as well.

Resources: