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….
- The chemical detected in the mac and cheese 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.