Good Choices

Toxic Industrial Chemicals Found in 10 Varieties of Macaroni and Cheese Powders

Mac n' cheese and chemicals

Ann Arbor, MI, July 14, 2017 — Laboratory testing, commissioned by the Ecology Center, of 10 varieties of macaroni and cheese products has revealed phthalates, a toxic hormone disrupting class of chemicals, in the cheese powders of all the boxed macaroni and cheese tested. The Michigan-based Ecology Center is a leading organization in a new national coalition which aims to identify and remove toxic industrial contaminants from our food system.

On National Macaroni and Cheese Day, the coalition is calling on The Kraft Heinz Company—the dominant seller of boxed macaroni and cheese, with 76 percent of market share—to drive industry-wide change by eliminating any sources of phthalates that may end up in its cheese products. Detailed information and a public petition are available at

For the study, the Ecology Center’s Healthy Stuff project facilitated the testing of 30 individual cheese products with an independent laboratory experienced in the testing of phthalates (THAL-eights) in food. The cheese products were from various manufacturers, purchased at retail grocery stores in Michigan and elsewhere in the United States and shipped to the lab, unopened, in their original packaging. The samples tested included nine of Kraft’s many cheese products. Findings revealed:

  • Phthalates in nearly every cheese product tested (29 of 30 items tested), with 10 different phthalates identified and up to six found in a single product.

  • Phthalates in eight of the nine Kraft cheese product items tested.

  • Phthalates at levels on average more than four times higher in the fat of macaroni and cheese powder than in the fat of blocks of cheese and other natural cheese.

  • DEHP, the most widely banned phthalate around the world, in all 10 macaroni and cheese powders. DEHP accounted for nearly 60 percent of all phthalates found in the cheese product items that were tested.

Phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals that can lower testosterone, the male sex hormone, and alter thyroid function. Scientists have linked exposure to some phthalates, during pregnancy and early childhood, to changes in the developing brain that may affect children’s ability to succeed in school, at work, and in life.

“Ecology Center has been testing consumer products for a decade and using the data to drive real change in the marketplace,” explained Dr. Gillian Z. Miller, senior scientist, Ecology Center. “We’ve identified phthalates in diverse items like floor tiles, clothing, and electronics. Given the ubiquity of these chemicals in our world, it’s not surprising to find them as contaminants in food.”

Human health studies also have linked exposure to some phthalates, during pregnancy, with a genital condition in baby boys called hypospadias. This condition is associated with increased risk of reproductive health problems, including testicular and prostate cancer, and poor sperm quality.

"Over my 35-year career as a neonatal nurse I witnessed a growing number of birth defects in the babies I cared for," said Joyce Stein, retired neonatal nurse. "I was shocked to find out that the chemical DEHP, that has been banned in most NICUs, was found in so many cheese products. We know how dangerous this chemical is, and mothers and babies should not be consuming it."

Federal scientists reported this year that up to 725,000 American women of childbearing age may be exposed daily to phthalates at levels that threaten the healthy development of their babies, should they become pregnant.

Scientists agree that for most people the greatest exposure to phthalates comes from the food we eat.

Phthalates are not intentionally added to food but are classified as “indirect” food additives by government agencies. Industrial chemicals commonly added to plastics, rubber, adhesives, inks, and coatings, phthalates have been shown to migrate into food products during food processing, packaging, and preparation.

The Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging has requested that Kraft identifies and eliminates any sources of phthalates in the production of its cheese products, and use its leadership position to change the industry. Kraft has agreed to review the test results.  

“Our research shows that harmful phthalates are present in many of Kraft’s products,” said Lauren Olson, science campaign director for the Ecology Center. “However, we need the company’s cooperation and commitment to exploring where these toxic chemicals are entering their supply chain, and look into alternative production processes to avoid contamination.”

Kraft has been an industry leader on similar issues before, announcing a phase-out of artificial food dyes and preservatives in its macaroni and cheese in 2015, in response to scientific and consumer concerns.

A 2014 scientific review paper concluded that dairy products were the largest contributor to dietary exposure to DEHP for pregnant women and children, based on phthalate levels and food consumption rates.

Based on the risks that phthalates pose to women and children, many of these chemicals have been banned for use in children’s toys and childcare articles by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But that’s little protection for pregnant women. Europe has already prohibited all phthalates from use in plastic food contact materials for fatty foods, including dairy products, except for three phthalates whose use has been highly restricted. In contrast, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has failed to take action in response to growing concern and scientific consensus.

The laboratory that tested the 30 cheese products used validated analytical methods and careful quality-control measures, which have been previously reported in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, to analyze the food items for 13 ortho-phthalates.

About the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging

The Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging is a national coalition of nonprofit organizations concerned about human health, food safety, and social justice who are working together to persuade major food manufacturers to identify and eliminate phthalates and other chemicals of high concern from the American food supply.

Its members include:

Ecology Center / Healthy Stuff

  • Environmental Health Strategy Center
  • Prevent Harm
  • Natural Resources Defense Council
  • Earthjustice
  • WE ACT for Environmental Justice
  • Center for Food Safety
  • Learning Disabilities Association of America
  • Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families / Mind the Store
  • Healthy Babies Bright Futures
  • Toxic-Free Future
  • Safer States
  • Center for Science in the Public Interest
  • Science & Environmental Health Network