A recent study of cheese products purchased in the United States detected chemicals called phthalates in 29 of 30 samples tested with the highest concentrations found in cheese powders used in boxed macaroni and cheese mixes. The study, paid for by environmental advocacy groups: Environmental Health Strategy Center, Ecology Center, Healthy Babies Bright Futures and Safer States was conducted by an independent lab, the Flemish Institute for Technological Research in Belgium. Fat was taken for each sample and analyzed for 13 different phthalates.
In particular, 10 different boxed macaroni and cheese varieties were tested, including organic, with high levels of the chemicals found in all of them. Nine of the 30 cheese products were made by Kraft, the company that makes most of the two million boxes of macaroni and cheese sold daily in the U.S.
“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,” said Mike Belliveau, executive director of one advocacy group. “Our belief is that it’s in every mac ‘n’ cheese product – you can’t shop your way out of the problem,”
While the chemicals are not added to foods deliberately, they migrate their way in through plastic packaging, food processing and manufacturing equipment. Studies have shown that because phthalates bind with fats, they can often be found not just in cheese, but baked goods, meats, oils, fast food and infant formula. Europe has banned many phthalates from coming into contact with fatty foods and baby foods, however the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies many of the phthalates as indirect food additives.
What are phthalates?
Phthalates are chemicals added to plastics to increase properties such as flexibility, durability, pliability and softness. There are also used as solvents and are found in ink and adhesives. Phthalates were commonly used in children’s toys prior to Congress banning them to certain specifications in 2008. The chemicals provided the soft, flexible feel to the children’s rubber duck, for example.
Exposure and ingestion of phthalates is widespread in the United States. Through general environmental and food contamination, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the vast majority of Americans have metabolites of multiple varieties of phthalates in their urine. Read the CDC’s phthalates fact sheet here.
How harmful are phthalates?
Phthaletes have been linked to birth defects in boys, disrupting male hormones like testosterone, and learning and behavioral problems. Researchers have also linked the chemicals to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues.
Heather Patisaul, Professor of Biological Sciences at the Center for Human Health and the Environment, North Carolina State University, cites strong evidence of phthalates blocking testosterone production in males. “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 [including] infertility, low sperm counts, altered male reproductive behavior and changes in the area of the brain that are important for sex differences between men and women, as well as a heightened risk of testicular cancer later on,” she said. “If you asked most scientists about the top 10 or 20 endocrine-disrupting chemicals they worry about, phthalates would be on that list. We have an enormous amount of data.”
In Seattle, Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, Associate Professor of Pediatrics , University of Washington, studies phthalates and says research is also showing links to neurodevelopmental and behavior problems through early childhood exposure including aggression, hyperactivity and possible cognitive delays.
Food safety and environmental groups are currently coordinating a petition process to ask the FDA to remove all phthalates from food, its packaging, processing and manufacturing.
Tom Nelter, Chemicals Policy Director for the Environmental Defense Fund, said, “a chemical is not allowed in food unless there is a reasonable certainty it will cause no harm. We don’t think the FDA can say there is a reasonable certainty of no harm.”
Tips to Avoid Phthaletes
- Avoid boxed and other processed foods
- Eat whole, fresh, frozen fruits and vegetables
- Avoid high fat foods (cream, fatty meats, whole milk)
- Do not use plastics to store food
- Do not put hot liquids in plastic cups, bottles or containers
- Check for phthaletes in personal care products (moisturizers, cosmetics, fragrances)
- Choose unscented, “phthalate-free” or “non-synthetic fragrance” products