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.



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Citrus top notes, floral undertones, with hints of carcinogens: toxic fragrances (part 1)

Ad from for Be Delicious perfume

When I was 15 I was shopping with my sister at Macy’s and she bought me this little apple-shaped bottle of perfume on display at the checkout counter. It smelled like heaven – sweet, velvety, and a lingering hint of sophistication. Be Delicious, DKNY’s “apple perfume” became my staple fragrance for several years – it made me feel confident and sexy, and I didn’t think twice about what was in it. In all honesty, I still miss that perfume sometimes. But, I cannot go back to using synthetic fragrance, because in keeping with the curse of toxic-free education, you cannot unlearn this information…

Fragrance, also labeled parfum, is an umbrella term for a blend of various synthetic chemicals and are trade secret. That means companies don’t have to disclose the specific chemical compounds used in their blends. There are approximately 3,000 different chemicals used in proprietary fragrances, many of which are linked to various health concerns including cancer, allergies, neurotoxicity, and reproductive and developmental toxicity.

In addition to ‘fragrance/parfum’, there are a number of other ingredients in perfumes, including solvents, dyes, stabilizers, penetration enhancers, preservatives, and UV filters. The fragrance industry is internationally self-regulated, and companies are not required to disclose any ingredients they use. Some companies do choose to provide customers with a limited ingredient list, but many others do not.

One of the biggest concerns with these ingredients is that many are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which means they affects your hormones. The dangerous problem with EDCs is that they are very powerful at very small doses. Fetuses, infants, and children are at an even greater risk of health impacts from EDCs because they are in stages of rapid development and do not have fully formed endocrine systems. Fragrance compounds can be EDCs, as can some of the filler ingredients like oxybenzone (UV filter), phthalates (solvent), and BTH (preservative).

The Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics co-published results from testing and analyzing the safety of 17 name brand perfumes/colognes in their 2010 report, Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrances. They found many perfumes contained undisclosed ingredients that can affect development, reproductive health, immune function, and potentially cause cancer.

Fragrance is also a potent allergen, causing and triggering asthma. I have asthma and I’m moderately sensitive to fragrance. A few times now, I’ve been at the gym and had to relocate to a machine on the other side of the room because someone with incredibly strong smelling perfume gets onto the machine next to mine. I get a headache and feel dizzy, which doesn’t make for a very successful workout! The tide is slowly changing in regards to fragrances in public spaces, but many people are still unaware of fragrance sensitivity, which can worsen as one is continually exposed to unwanted secondhand fragrance over their lifetime. When individuals use synthetic perfumes, they develop a tolerance to the scent and gradually apply it in heavier doses. So to them, it might seem like a pleasant, subtle aroma, but to those of us with sensitivities, it’s a formidable cloud of toxic air. For those with severe allergies, it’s a trip to the emergency room. This is why it’s so important for people to respect fragrance-free zones and to be aware that fragrance sensitivities can be as serious as any other allergy.

I highly recommend reading a Canberra Times (Australia) article about toxic chemicals in fragrance, in which the author perfectly captures what it is like to go through our heavily scented world with a fragrance sensitivity. She also talks about the science of scent and the health risks associated with certain ingredients.

The issue of fragrance is complex and a bit dense, which is why this post is just a scratch on the surface of this topic. My next post in the fragrance series will cover other consumer products and provide details on the specific chemicals used in fragrance blends.


Not Just a Pretty Face, by Stacy Malkan

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Tips for Evaluating Product Safety & Reading Ingredient Labels

Reading ingredient labels is an essential part of switching to non-toxic products. You have to be careful to not make assumptions that a product is safe based on its label claims, like “all natural” or “dermatologist recommended”. That does not necessarily guarantee a product is safe. Here are a few tips that I found to be helpful in making decisions about products:

  • Scan the bottle first. What you’re looking for:
    • Are there any certifications on the product? USDA, leaping bunny, Oregon Tilth, etc… (I’ll do a blog post on these at some point)
    • Does it tout “all natural” or something to that effect and have no apparent evidence that support this claim?
    • Face-wash specific: does it say “oil-free” – that is a bad sign
  • Scan the ingredient list. What you’re looking for:
    • How long is the ingredient list? Are ALL the active AND inactive ingredients disclosed, if applicable?
    • What are the first five ingredients?
    • Are ingredients labeled organic?
    • Do you recognize the ingredient names as plants or fruits?
  • Learn the basic toxic chemicals to avoid and what is normal to expect in different products (like a lotion is usually a mix of water and a bunch of oils; shampoo will have some kind of foaming agent or soap in it)

I have discovered, after years of looking at different ingredient lists, that there are patterns to the words that are usually the toxic ingredients. There are similarities that you can use in your initial assessment to determine if an ingredient is worth a second look. These are some of the things that catch my eye when I scan a list of ingredients:

  • Words or parts of words: e.g., Butyl, propyl, methyl, lauryl, -ic, –ene, -ate, carbomer, petrolatum, paraffin
  • Numbers:  e.g., 1,4- or -120
  • Capitalized abbreviations: e.g., PEG, EDTA
  • Numerical prefixes or parts: e.g., penta, poly, deca, abbreviations (like EDTA),
  • Artificial dyes: (colors with numbers or the word “lake”) e.g., red 40
  • Fragrance or parfum (unless from essential oils or botanicals)

This image below nicely lays out how to identify petrochemicals in your products. I got this from a Canadian company called Cocoon Apothecary.  

Remember that this is a constant process, and even I continually agonize over comparing products, determining safety of ingredients, and sometimes fail to catch that one little deal-breaking chemical in the long ingredient list of a product. My bottom line recommendation is just be patient, take a few minutes to look carefully at products, and don’t be too disheartened if you think a product is safe and then find out it probably isn’t.

Other resources: