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
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
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
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
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.