Are There Industrial Chemicals In Your Mac & Cheese?

Image courtesy of Mike Mozart

While the federal government banned phthalates — industrial chemicals used in anything from vinyl flooring to perfume — from baby products like teething rings and toys almost 10 years ago, a new study says these potentially harmful toxins could be showing up elsewhere in your kid’s life: Macaroni and cheese.

While Congress passed a law [PDF] in 2008 banning phthalates from certain infant products, they’re still used in things like food packaging, making them an “indirect” food additives when they escape from food contact materials, notes a study [PDF] of 30 cheese products conducted by a group called the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging.

The Study

The study found phthalates in all but one of 30 samples tested. That group included 10 different varieties of mac and cheese — all products purchased in the U.S. — included some labeled “organic.”

The highest concentrations were found in the processed cheese powder that anyone who’s ever made boxed mac and cheese will recognize: Average phthalate levels were more than four times higher in macaroni and cheese powder samples than in hard blocks and other natural cheese, in fat of products tested.

The most widely restricted phthalate — DEHP — was found more often and in a much higher concentration than the others in all cheese products tested.

Nine of the cheese products tested were made by Kraft, but the group didn’t disclose the names of specific products tested. Kraft didn’t respond to a request for comment on the study from The New York Times. We’ve also reached out to Kraft and will update this post if we hear back.

About 710 million boxes of dry mix mac & cheese were sold in the U.S. in 2012, the study’s authors note.

The groups are now urging consumers to reach out to food manufacturers and ask them to eliminate the ingredient from products.

Why test cheese products?
The authors of the study cite a scientific review that concluded that dairy products are the greatest source of dietary exposure to the phthalate DEHP for infants and women of reproductive age.

“Therefore, cheese products were chosen as the first in a series of dairy products and other foods to test for phthalates,” the study notes. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first-ever report on phthalate levels in cheese powder from macaroni and cheese.”

Why Should I Care About Phthalates?

Our colleagues at Consumer Reports have noted previously that because they can upset the delicate balance of hormones, phthalate exposure during key periods of fetal development has been linked, mostly in animal studies, to a host of problems in the developing fetus.

“The male reproductive system is particularly at risk since phthalates interfere with androgens—male hormones like testosterone—causing defects in the position of the urethra (hypospadias is the scientific term), testicular development and fertility,” CR noted. “Some phthalates have also been linked to liver cancer.”

Critics of this particular study — which just so happens to have been released on National Macaroni and Cheese Day — are warning folks not to freak out just yet.

Noting that phthalates are indeed, “industrial chemicals” used in various applications, Dr. Joe Schwarcz — who is known to some as the “Carl Sagan of Canada,”points out that “just because they have use in a non-food application does not mean they present a risk if found in food.”

He uses the example of ethanol, which is a widely used solvent that is also added to gasoline — “yet we happily drink it.”

Acknowledging that some phthalates have hormone-like activity that can prompt concerns about exoposure in humans during gestation and infancy, he notes that “it is therefore understandable that their presence in a common food such as cheese would raise eyebrows.”

“But contrary to the numerous articles that have reported on this press release, the presence of phthalates in food cannot be equated to the presence of risk!” he adds.

One could comment on risk if there were experiments that showed eating mac and cheese leads to a significant increase in phthalates in the circulatory system, he says, but the laboratory findings revealed in this study “say nothing about that.”