News Spotlight: Phthalates in Mac and Cheese

A couple days ago, The New York Times published a story about phthalates found in boxed mac and cheese. This morning, the NY Times article was one of the front-page pieces in the Seattle Times. This interest is driven by a recent report from the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging in which a study of 30 cheese products reveal significantly high levels of phthalates. The powdered cheese packs from boxed mac and cheese contained the highest levels, which was four times that of other cheeses tested (like block or shredded).

So, when I read this, I thought I was safe since I buy organic boxed mac and cheese. Nope. Unfortunately, phthalates were found in organic boxes as well. *sigh*

How do these chemicals get into foods?   Phthalates are used in manufacturing and product packaging and leach into food during production and storage. These chemicals are lipophilic (fat liking), so they accumulate in fats, including our own bodies. Fattier foods will have higher concentrations of phthalates.

What are phthalates and why should we be concerned?   Pronounced thal-eights, they are a group of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)ˆ primarily used to make plastics soft and pliable. They’re also used as solvents in fragrance and found in a variety of other products including adhesives, shampoos, lotions, cosmetics, body washes, nail polish, detergents, hair styling products, and wood finishes.

These chemicals disrupt hormone function and are linked to birth defects in male infants, endocrine cancers, developmental delays, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. Phthalates pose a significant risk to men because they target testosterone, leading to feminization, lowered sperm counts, and genital defects. The NTPˆ and EPA consider phthalates to be probable human carcinogens. Exposure to EDCs at times of heightened vulnerability during development changes how the body grows, which can have lasting health consequences, such as infertility.

If you asked most scientists about the top 10 or 20 endocrine-disrupting chemicals they worry about, phthalates would be on that list,” Dr. Patisaul said — Quote from the NY Times article

How do you avoid phthalates?   Well, you’ll probably be exposed at some point without knowing it (they’re everywhere), but you can control some routes of exposure. This is especially important for pregnant women, infants, and young children. Here are some ways you can limit exposure:

  • Reduce your consumption of processed foods and eat fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Consume low-fat dairy products, since phthalates can accumulate in fat.
  • Ditch the plastic: use glass, ceramic, stainless steel, and wood to store food. If you must use plastic, opt for harder polycarbonate ones and don’t use them for anything hot. Additionally, avoid microwaving food in plastic as the heat increases the leaching of chemicals.
  • Avoid synthetic fragrance and check your personal care products for labeled phthalates. They may also be called DEHP or DEP.
  • Look for personal care products labeled “phthalate-free” and choose organic, non-toxic products.
  • Buy products in glass bottles or jars, especially cooking oils or fatty foods like peanut butter.
  • Make mac and cheese from scratch!

On a broader level, what can you do?   Reach out to companies and express your concern over this issue. Or you can join some of the collective action happening:

Safer chemicals, healthy families:
This petition to the Kraft Heinz Company requests they eliminate all sources of phthalates that may contaminate food.

Toxic-Free Future:
Add your name to a message that will be sent to the Kraft Heinz Company expressing concern over the testing and asking them to eliminate sources of phthalates in all their cheese products.

Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging:
This is a petition you can sign like the ones above, but it’s from the group that conducted the study of the cheeses.



ˆ Denotes a term that is defined/explained under the terms/concepts/glossary page of blog. Symbol found following the word the first time it’s used in a post.