Many people looking for a quick meal at home find themselves pulling a box of macaroni and cheese out of the pantry. Maybe you’re cooking for one and don’t want to dirty a slew of pots and pans. Or, if you’re like me, you’re simply trying to find a dish everyone can agree on that can be made in the short time span between work/ school and everything else. And you’re likely pulling out two or three boxes.
Recent findings released by the Ecology Center, however, reveal that the dry powdered cheese mixes in those boxes have on average four times the amount of phthalates (thal-eights) than block cheese and other unprocessed cheeses. This revelation has caused quite a stir in the media. Some say, “Never eat boxed mac and cheese!” Others are throwing their arms up in the air, telling readers not to worry about phthalates...after all, they are in everything!
Which one should we subscribe to? Well neither...or maybe a little of both. You see, phthalates are ubiquitous in our food. Twenty-nine out of 30 cheese products tested had detectable levels of phthalates. But, this doesn’t mean that it’s ok. And yes, certain foods have more than others. But, simply avoiding those foods won’t solve the problem.
As with everything else in which we find toxic chemicals, the burden should not be on us--the consumers--to navigate our way to toxic-free food or consumer goods. We need industry to step up and make sure there aren’t phthalates in our food or in our products. Let’s examine the issue for a minute.
Phthalates are a family of chemicals that are known to disrupt the hormone system. They can lower testosterone, the male sex hormone, and alter thyroid function. Exposure to some phthalates while still in the womb is linked to a genital condition in baby boys called hypospadias. This condition puts boys at increased risk of reproductive health problems later in life, including testicular and prostate cancer, and poor sperm quality. Health effects aren’t limited to male reproductive organs. Exposure in utero and in early childhood can also cause changes in the brain, possibly affecting a child’s ability to succeed in school, at work, and in life.
For these very serious health reasons, several phthalates have been banned from children’s toys, sippy cups, bottles, and other childcare products. Go to a Home Depot or Lowe’s and you won’t even find phthalates in the vinyl flooring. These retail giants phased them out in 2015. Yet, DEHP, the most widely banned phthalate around the world, was found in all 10 macaroni and cheese powders tested. DEHP accounted for nearly 60 percent of all phthalates found in the cheese product items that were tested.
Phthalates are plasticizers. They are added to plastic to make it more pliable. But, they don’t stay there. These chemicals are absorbed by the things they touch, especially things that contain fat. The more a food product is processed, the more plastic it touches, and the more phthalates are likely to be in your meal. You won’t see phthalates listed as an ingredient because they are not added intentionally. And yet, scientists agree that for most people the greatest exposure to phthalates comes from the food we eat.
Phthalates migrate from the plastic tubing used to carry milk (yes, even organic milk!) or other liquids, conveyor belts, food handling gloves, inks, coatings, and more. Therefore, it makes sense that testing would show higher amounts of phthalates in processed cheese mixes as compared to unprocessed cheese.
For many, the first thought is, “How can I make mac and cheese at home without the box?” There are some great recipes out there. I tried some out on my family last night. Some involve cooking the pasta in milk or a milk/ water mix to make it creamier. Some can be made without a roux (a flour-based sauce) for a gluten-free option. Others involve adding fresh produce like butternut squash to up the health factor (and lower dairy content). But, no recipe can be guaranteed free of phthalates.
There will be fewer phthalates in homemade macaroni and cheese, which personally I will make for my kids. I will also work to avoid/ reduce all processed cheese in our diet. It’s a lot of snack foods. After we finish the box of cheese crackers in the cupboard, I won’t buy any more. But, the most important thing I will do is sign a petition. The Ecology Center is asking Kraft Heinz, which sells 76% of boxed mac and cheese in the U.S., to take the lead on getting phthalate contaminants out of their products. This starts by using phthalate-free food contact materials. Food manufacturers in Europe use phthalate-free food contact materials for processing all fatty foods, including dairy. It can be done.
American shoppers--just like those in Europe--should be able to go to the grocery store and pick up a product and not have to worry whether or not it contains life-altering hormone-disruptors. Signing the petition will let Kraft know that you want all of their food products to be phthalate-free. This is the best recipe for non-toxic mac and cheese--for everyone.
Published on July 25, 2017