A new study by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging reveals that powdered cheeses found in your favorite macaroni and cheese contain harmful chemicals known as phthalates.
Phthalates can pose a risk to small children and pregnant women as they can affect male hormones and have been associated with genital birth defects in infant boys, the New York Times reported. They have also caused learning and behavioral problems in children.
“Although not intentionally added to food, phthalates are ‘indirect’ food additives when they escape from food contact materials,” the study said. “Phthalates tend to be found at higher levels in highly processed or fatty foods.”
The study tested 30 cheese products and found phthalates in all but one of them, it said. But the average phthalate levels were more than four times higher in the macaroni and cheese powder than in hard blocks of cheese, the study found.
And nine of the cheese products tested were produced by Kraft, the Times reported.
Some two million boxes of mac and cheese, a relatively inexpensive food that can be whipped up in minutes, are sold every day in the United States, according to 2013 figures from Symphony/IRI Group. Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center said consumers would have a hard time avoiding the chemical.
“Our belief is that it’s in every mac ‘n’ cheese product – you can’t shop your way out of the problem,” Mr. Belliveau said.
Tom Neltner, the chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Times that environmental and food safety groups petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to remove all phthalates from food, food packaging and food processing and manufacturing equipment.
“A chemical is not allowed in food unless there is a reasonable certainty it will cause no harm,” he said. “We don’t think the FDA can say there is a reasonable certainty of no harm.”
Phthalates have already been banned from babies’ teething toys.
An FDA spokeswoman said there should be “sufficient scientific information to demonstrate that the use of a substance in food contact materials is safe under the intended conditions of use before it is authorized for those uses.”
“The FDA continues to monitor literature and research on these compounds as it becomes available,” she said.
The study concluded that further research on the presence of phthalates in food is needed, and the chemical should be removed from food products.
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.
■ If you’d like to try making your own macaroni and cheese, here are a few recipe options from the Cooking section of The New York Times: Creamy Macaroni and Cheese; Crusty Macaroni and Cheese; The Best Macaroni and Cheese.
Well, this sucks.
I admit that I do eat boxed mac and cheese in a pinch, especially when I grill up burgers and dogs.
If you have these in your pantry, you are probably better off tossing them in the trash.