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Should You Stop Feeding Your Kids Mac and Cheese?

Photograph by Twenty20

If someone told you that something you were regularly feeding your kids was full of chemicals, you'd probably freak out and stop buying that product to feed your family, right? Especially if the amount of chemicals was anywhere from two to four times the rate of what's in a "natural," unprocessed product.

The New York Times recently published a rather alarming piece about a new study that detected “potentially harmful chemicals” called phthalates in 29 out of 30 sampled cheese products, including 10 kinds of macaroni and cheese mixes that use powdered cheese. This has a lot of moms worried because hello, kids love mac and cheese!

Here's what you need to know: Phthalates are chemicals that are used to soften and add flexibility to plastic and vinyl. They're also used in all kinds of products that you wouldn’t consider to be plastic or vinyl, like cosmetics, perfume, detergents and hundreds of other products you buy.

These chemicals are concerning because they're endocrine disruptors. In other words, they can potentially interfere with the production of hormones. In boys, phthalates can mess with the production of testosterone and have been linked to reproductive organ birth defects as well as learning and behavioral problems later in life. In girls, early exposure to phthalates has been linked to lowered thyroid function, which affects brain development. In pregnant women, the worry is that if the production of testosterone is being blocked by phthalates, then a developing male fetus might not get enough.

The study that the New York Times refers to was published on kleanupkraft.org, an advocacy site, and has not been published in any peer-reviewed journals, which means it has not been put through the rigorous process designed to ensure the quality and validity of the research published that a peer-reviewed study goes through. Still, the conclusion of the study that “further research is needed on the phthalate levels in food and further action should be taken to eliminate phthalates in any food products” doesn't seem unreasonable.

If you’re wondering how these chemicals are ending up in mac and cheese mixes, rest assured they're not being added on purpose. They end up migrating into food that is processed with equipment such as tubing, conveyor belts or any other plastic materials that contain phthalates. Food can also be contaminated with phthalates from any plastic materials or printed labels on packaging.

In Europe, the use of many phthalates is banned in plastics that have contact with fatty foods­ because they're fat soluble. That’s not the case in the U.S., where the FDA classifies phthalates that end up in food as indirect food additives.

But really, how freaked out should you be about the findings of this study? Well, first, the data is in no way conclusive. There's not sufficient information on the levels of phthalates found in the products sampled or what products were even tested, and the scientific jury is still out on the amount of consumption of phthalates it takes to cause any harm.

Should you never again feed your family any mac and cheese that you didn’t make from scratch? That’s completely up to you, of course, but the occasional boxed mac and cheese for dinner is nothing to beat yourself up about.

In the end, it’s always good to stay informed, and concluding that further research needs to be done on the effects of phthalates in our food is not unfounded, but you definitely don't need to freak out and ban it from your pantry.

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