Almost every person, especially kids and college students, can attest that they’ve lived on mac and cheese at various times in their life. This seemingly harmless food choice (and I use the word food here quite loosely as it barely resembles food) may be a lot more harmful than you might think, according to new independent laboratory research conducted by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging.
The laboratory tested 30 different cheese products, ranging from cheese powder to processed cheese, as well as hard, shredded, string and cottage cheese. They found excessively high levels of phthalates in 29 of the 30 types tested. Cheese powders, like those used in packaged boxes of macaroni and cheese, had the highest levels of phthalates of all the different cheese products tested, more than doubling processed cheese which also had high levels of the toxin, and quadrupling so-called natural cheeses.
Even processed cheese slices had three times more phthalates than the products described as natural cheeses, which also had excessive amounts of phthalates. Considering that approximately 2 million boxes of mac and cheese were sold in 2013 alone, the damage these chemicals may be causing is clearly widespread. Some products had up to 6 different kinds of phthalates present. Kraft manufactured 9 of the 30 products tested; officials at the company gave no statement on the test results, according to news reports by the New York Times. A search on phthalates on Kraft’s website at the time of writing this blog yielded no results.
Phthalates (pronounced “thallets”) are petrochemical-derived chemicals that are typically added to plastics to soften them and make them more pliable. Sadly, they are commonly found in plastic toys, shower curtains, vinyl floors, plastic food containers, air fresheners, pharmaceutical drugs, cosmetics, insecticides, nail polish, hair spray and even baby care products. According to the science-based policy and advocacy group Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, phthalates are linked to breast cancer, asthma, decreased fertility, obesity and developmental disorders.
Some medications are coated in a type of phthalate known as di-n-butyl-phthalate. I have described them as part of the “dirty dozen toxins” found in most skincare products. While slathering phthalates on your skin or popping pills coated in them is certainly not appealing, eating them in our food products is potentially worse, particularly when these foods are eaten in high volumes by children, whose developing bodies and brains are even more vulnerable than our adult bodies.
Eleven health and environmental advocacy groups petitioned the FDA to ban phthalates from food, food packaging, processing and manufacturing equipment to no avail. While the United States government assessed the potential harm of phthalates over three years ago, recognizing the threat they pose particularly from exposures in food (among others), the Food and Drug Administration has done nothing to ban their use. There is no value in a report that merely collects dust on the shelves, desks and even minds of bureaucrats.
I’ve been jokingly telling clients for years that phthalates and other chemicals are derived from petrochemicals that cannot be used in powering our vehicles. Instead, they find their way into our food, personal care products and toys when the oil and gas, which is no laughing matter.
A study published in the medical journal Environmental Research showed that prenatal phthalate exposure negatively impacted the reproductive function of men. Additional research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism estimates that phthalate-caused male infertility results in 618,000 extra medical fertility interventions per year at an additional cost of €4.71 billion annually ($5.4 billion US dollars based on today’s exchange rate). But, men are not the only ones whose reproductive functions are negatively impacted by phthalates. In an animal study published in the medical journal Reproductive Toxicology scientists found that even short-term exposure to a type of phthalate known as di-n-butyl phthalate significantly disrupted ovarian functions in female animals.