Roughly two million boxes of macaroni and cheese are sold each day in the United States alone, but a recent study revealed that the powdered cheese might contain harmful chemicals called phthalates.
The report, commissioned by a group of four advocacy groups, found phthalates in 29 of 30 cheese products selected for testing from the United States. The highest concentrations of the chemicals were detected in the processed cheese powder included with many mac and cheese mixes that come in boxes.
Phthalates are chemicals frequently used to make plastics softer or more pliable. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), phthalates are found in hundreds of products, like toys, detergents, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, hair sprays, shampoos, perfumes and more.
However, exposure to the chemicals may result in harmful effects, particularly in pregnant women and young children. Phthalates may interfere with testosterone levels, resulting in birth defects and reduced fertility in males.
The study was conducted by purchasing 30 cheese products from several brands at retail stores in the United States and then sending them in their original packaging to an independent laboratory in Belgium called VITO (Flemish Institute for Technological Research). The products were checked for 13 phthalates.
The study, which has not been published in a peer-review journal, found powdered cheese to contain high concentrations of the chemicals.
“The phthalate concentrations in powder from mac and cheese mixes were more than four times higher than in block cheese and other natural cheeses like shredded cheese, string cheese and cottage cheese,” Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, told The New York Times. The organization was one of four groups that paid for the testing.
Ten different types of mac and cheese were tested for the chemicals, including those labeled organic, but phthalates were found in all of them.
“Our belief is that it’s in every mac ‘n’ cheese product — you can’t shop your way out of the problem,” Belliveau said.
Kraft is the main target of the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging because the company makes the largest amount of mac and cheese products on the market. Nine of the cheese products tested were made by Kraft.
“We are calling on Kraft to lead the industry to address the challenge posed by phthalates because they are, by the far, the largest brand, and therefore have the power to push for industry-wide change,” the coalition wrote on its site kleanupkraft.com. “If Kraft commits to identifying and eliminating any sources of phthalates that end up in food, we believe the entire industry will follow suit.”
Chemicals Banned for Use in Children’s Toys
Although phthalates continue to show up in different types of food items, the chemicals have been banned in many children’s products.
In 2008, Congress banned the use of phthalates in children’s toys and items in which children under the age of 3 may use for sucking or teething. However, the FDA has not banned the use of the chemical in foods.
According to experts, phthalates are not deliberately added to food, but they can seep into foods during food processing and packaging. Plastic tubing, conveyor belts, printed labels and plastic packaging can all seep the chemicals into the food.
Phthalates are more likely to bind with fatty foods, which is why products like powdered cheese are particularly susceptible to exposure.
The FDA does have the ability to regulate any substances that may seep into food. A spokesman for the agency told the Times that there must 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.”
In 2016, a coalition of groups concerned about the health of children petitioned the FDA to reconsider using the chemicals in food packaging. The agency agreed to reconsider use, but the petition has since been delayed for technical reasons, according to Tom Neltner, who is coordinating the effort.
“A chemical is not allowed in food unless there is a reasonable certainty it will cause no harm,” Neltner told the Times. “We don’t think the F.D.A. can say there is a reasonable certainty of no harm.”
Studies Link Phthalates with Adverse Effects
While the effects of phthalates on human health remain unclear, studies have shown a link between the chemicals and adverse effects. Aside from a possible effect on testosterone levels, one study showed an association between phthalates and childhood asthma.
Another study this year published in Pediatric Research found an association between exposure to certain phthalates while in the womb and a risk for obesity and weight issues in childhood.
A third study published in Environmental Research found existing data to support a direct connection between exposure to phthalates and the development of autism. While evidence showed a connection, the scientists recommended further research to account for relevant pre- and post-natal cofounders.
To avoid exposure to high levels of phthalates, consumers are recommended to eat more fruits and vegetables, choose low-fat dairy products and avoid scented cosmetics.