Many people consider mac and cheese the ultimate comfort food. Unfortunately, a Belgian study warns that the cheese powder used to make the dish contains alarming levels of chemicals.
The chemicals in question are called phthalates (pronounced THAL-eights). Manufacturers use phthalates to soften plastic, making it ideal for vinyl flooring, shower curtains, and food labels. Perfume, deodorant, and plastic bottles also contain the plasticizer.
Because phthalates do not chemically bond to plastic, they leach out over time. Fatty foods, such as the cheese powder from mac and cheese mixes, can then bond to the phthalates in their packaging, causing humans to ingest the dangerous substance.
The harmful effects of these chemicals are well studied. To protect children from exposure, Congress banned the use of phthalates in children’s toys and pacifiers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates food safety, could ban the plasticizer from food packaging and labels, but so far has shown no willingness to do so.
The study detected phthalates in 29 out of 30 samples.
The number of phthalates that the study detected may seem low when you see the results. The lab measured the concentration of phthalates in parts per billion. Still, the chemicals exist at high enough concentrations to affect the body’s hormones.
For instance, phthalates can alter reproductive hormone levels in girls and inhibit testosterone production in boys. Heather Patisaul, a professor of biological sciences at the Center for Human Health and the Environment at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, told the New York Times, “That means there is less testosterone available to the developing male fetus, and since testosterone is absolutely vital to build his reproductive organs, the worry is that you will get malformations and other kinds of problems that translate to health effects later.”
Early childhood exposure can also be dangerous. Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle, said that research indicates that there is a link between early childhood phthalate exposure and various behavioral and neurodevelopmental issues.
Aggression, hyperactivity, and possibly even cognitive delays have been linked to phthalate exposure.
What can consumers do to decrease exposure?
Those who ran the study created a petition to urge Kraft to quit using phthalates in its packaging and labels. While the food giant has bowed to pressure in the past (a grassroots effort convinced the company to quit using food dyes in 2015), the current petition has less momentum behind it.
Instead of waiting for the industry to change, consumers can benefit from an immediate decrease in the chemical by switching to homemade mac and cheese. The study found that non-powdered cheeses had around four times less phthalates present than the powdered mixes.
When consumers switch to homemade mac and cheese, they gain the freedom to make other aspects of the meal healthier as well. They could substitute wheat pasta or add broccoli and other veggies to make this comfort food more nutritious.
Phthalate levels are highest in fatty foods.
A 2014 meta-analysis found phthalates in a stunning variety of foods in the United States, Europe, and China. Levels were highest in meat, oils, fats, and cream. Scientists also detected phthalates in yogurt, milk, eggs, pasta, fruits and vegetables, but the plasticizers were at much lower concentrations in these foods.
Phthalates are everywhere, and there’s no way to completely avoid them. A National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that nearly the entire U.S. population has phthalates in their bodies. But by avoiding common sources for the chemical, such as perfumes, plastic bottles, fast food—and, sadly, boxed macaroni and cheese—consumers can reduce their exposure to this dangerous chemical.