Researchers say the ‘everywhere chemical’ is found in most products we buy, but phthalates in food can pose health risks. Yet not everyone agrees.
Before you bite into your next mouthful of macaroni and cheese, consider a new report that warns you may be biting into a spoonful of chemicals.
Earlier this month, a group of environmental advocacy organizations released findings from a series of tests conducted on cheese and cheese products available commercially in the United States.
Foods that were tested included block and string cheeses, plastic-wrapped cheese slices, and cheese powder from boxed macaroni and cheese.
The samples were purchased from stores in the United States and shipped to a European laboratory for analysis.
Researchers said they found that 29 of the 30 cheese products they tested contained chemicals called phthalates.
The amount of these chemicals was four times higher in cheese powder and three times higher in processed cheese slices.
Phthalates are industrial chemicals used to make plastics softer and more flexible. They’re also used in rubber, adhesives, inks, sealants, and protective wrappings. And they’re found in cosmetics, fragrances, skin creams, and even fast foods.
In other words, they’re in almost everything we touch every day, which is why they’ve been given the nickname “the everywhere chemical.”
However, that doesn’t mean phthalates are safe.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), phthalates are considered endocrine disruptors. These chemicals may interfere with your body’s natural hormones and reproductive system.
In 2006, the NIH’s National Toxicology Program released a study that concluded exposure to the phthalate DEHP could interfere with human development, especially in infant boys.
The cumulative exposure to phthalates, the study found, may have an impact on a child’s development.
Shortly after this study was released, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the United States Congress, banned several phthalates from children’s teething rings, pacifiers, and rubber duck toys.
Many more of these chemicals are banned in European countries, in everything from toys to food packaging.
“They are chemicals of concern because they can either mimic or displace hormones in the body, and can be active in the body at very low doses,” Jen Coleman, health communications and outreach director for Oregon Environmental Council, told Healthline. “Because hormones are basically chemical messengers in the body, interfering with them can affect health in a wide variety of ways — everything from mood to hunger to reproduction. For this reason, phthalates can be especially harmful to infants and children, as their bodies are growing and developing.”
Today, some U.S. consumer organizations are working toward a federal ban of these plasticizers in a growing list of products.
Their goal is to eliminate the chemicals as an approved substance so that accidental exposure, for people of all ages, is reduced. Their biggest target: food packages.
The group of organizations that paid for the cheese study includes the Center for Food Safety, Ecology Center, Healthy Babies Bright Futures, and Toxic-Free Future.
Many of these organizations have been petitioning food companies and the FDA to ban all phthalates from food packaging and food handling equipment for several years.
Perhaps that’s why this study was not published in a peer-reviewed journal, but first posted on the petition site KleanUpKraft.org.
Few foods are as universally loved as ooey-gooey macaroni and cheese.
But true macaroni and cheese, with its homemade béchamel sauce, is a bit tedious to make from scratch.
That’s why boxed versions of the comfort food, which can be made in a matter of minutes and use either prepared cheese sauces or powdered cheese products, are popular.
In fact, more than 2 million boxes of packaged macaroni and cheese are sold in the United States each day.
It’s no wonder then why the headline The Chemicals in Your Mac and Cheese garnered a viral buzz on social platforms after the study findings were released.
To put the lab’s findings into perspective, it’s important to understand how phthalates end up in food in the first place.
You won’t see them listed on your food’s ingredient list. They’re not additives in the way food coloring or preservatives are.
Instead, phthalates are a byproduct of manufacturing and storing foods. In other words, your food will come into contact with these chemicals during production, processing, or storage. Over time, some of the chemicals can migrate into the foods.
“We cannot take cheese and hand deliver it from a farm to your kitchen,” Josh Bloom, PhD, director of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences at the American Council on Science and Health, told Healthline. “Food needs to be put in a package. All packaging material contains chemicals, and tiny quantities will inevitably leach into the food. This has been going on ever since food has been wrapped.”
Cheese was a particularly good research vessel for the consumer group because studies have found that
Foods like individual cheese slices and powdered cheese also have more surface area exposed to the manufacturing equipment and packaging. The more surface area a food has, the more likely it is chemicals can migrate into it.
“The higher the fat content, the more likely a good is to pick up phthalates,” Coleman said. “But even after adjusting for fat content, powder has more phthalates than unprocessed cheese. This suggests that phthalates are introduced during processing.”
The researchers looked for 13 different types of the chemical and found 10 throughout the 30 samples. Indeed, all but one of these cheese products contained at least one phthalate.
One product had six different types. Even organic foods contained the chemicals.
“Organic food is a good idea for many reasons, and it does have standards for packaging and processing,” said Coleman. “However, phthalates may be introduced to food through tubing, hoses, conveyor belts, and gloves, or through the coating and adhesives in food packaging.”
“Modern analytical techniques can detect vanishingly small quantities of almost any chemical. Since phthalates are ubiquitous in everyday life, it would be astonishing if they were not found at all,” Bloom said. “The presence of a chemical says nothing about the harm or lack thereof of the chemical, yet the fact that it can be detected is a useful scare tactic.”
However, groups like the organizations that funded the study hope to make avoiding the chemicals easier by eliminating them entirely.
“Nobody can avoid all phthalates exposure, no matter where they live or what choices they make,” said Coleman, whose group believes the chemicals should be eliminated from food packaging. “But it is a good precautionary approach to try to avoid them and reduce exposures that add up. So choosing food packaging, household materials, and beauty products that are phthalate-free is a good place to start. What’s more, choosing products without phthalates is voting with your wallet. It sends a clear message to the marketplace that people are aware of this health hazard and will value companies that are making choices to protect health.”
In a statement to Time magazine, a spokesperson for the Kraft Heinz Company, which makes the majority of prepared macaroni and cheese products on the market, said that these chemicals are not added to its products, and “the trace amounts that were reported in this study are more than 1,000 times lower than levels that scientific authorities have identified as acceptable.”
An FDA spokeswoman told The New York Times that the agency currently regulates all substances that can come into contact and possibly leach into food. These includes phthalates.
Any decision to ban chemicals must be based on “sufficient scientific information to demonstrate that the use of a substance in food contact materials is safe under the intended conditions of use before it is authorized for those uses.”
The spokeswoman added that the FDA continually reviews studies to keep their regulations current.
Bloom, however, sees the study — and its related connection to encourage people to sign a petition asking the FDA to ban phthalates — differently.
He sees it as a marketing ploy.
“Encouraging people to petition companies to remove all chemicals from boxes is manipulative nonsense with an obvious agenda,” he said. “Assuming that it was even possible to get rid of all traces of phthalates, another chemical would replace them in the blink of an eye. There is way too much money to be made by keeping people scared of chemicals.”
“The problem with phthalates are cumulative, but for a smaller person, like a developing child, more can be problematic,” Josh Axe, DC, owner of Axe Wellness and Ancient Nutrition and a clinical nutritionist, told Healthline.
It’s unclear how many phthalates the average person encounters per day, and at what point it tips the scale to problematic.
Each phthalate is different, as is each person. Certain populations, including children and infants, may be more vulnerable.
Even then, knowing what’s too much is almost impossible because phthalate levels aren’t universally seen as dangerous, and they’re not monitored in foods.
The actionable advice from this study, Axe suggests, is simple.
If you want to avoid these chemicals, eat a balanced diet that incorporates whole foods, including fruits and vegetables, grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
Eat heavily processed foods in moderation, and store foods in glass or stainless steels, not plastic.
These steps may not eliminate the chemicals, but if you are concerned, they’ll go a long way to reducing them in your diet.