Is mac and cheese really harmless?


New studies, published last week show that high concentrations of phthalates in the cheese powder of macaroni and cheese.

The research was conducted by examining 30 different cheese products which included natural cheese products, along with processed cheese slices and the cheese powder found in boxed macaroni and cheese. The chemical was found in 29 of the 30 products, and the lowest levels were contained in the natural cheese, while processed products had the highest.The analysis was done by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging.

Phthalates are a family of chemicals that are used in soaps, plastics, adhesives, rubbers, inks etc. They are not added to the food, but they gradually make their way during the manufacturing process.

“They are used in the plastic tubing, the plastic gloves, the gaskets all along the food supply chain,” said Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, one of the groups participating in the coalition. A major exposure to these chemicals is also considered to be diet.

These chemicals are believed to be endocrine disruptors that are able to interfere with the body’s hormonal system, according to the National Institutes of Health. They are also easily absorbed by fat cells. Connection is found also between this chemical and fertility issues, and behavioral and neurodevelopmental issues in children who are exposed to them in utero. The phthalate DEHP is also capable of causing cancer according to the National Toxicology Program.

Although The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did acknowledge that the chemical does influence the reproductive system of animals, they add that “the impact of low level exposure on humans is unknown”, and more researches are needed on that matter. Nonetheless, a certain number of phthalates have been banned by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission since 2008 in some children’s products. In the Europe, European Commission also banned five kinds of phthalates from packaging materials used for food.

Megan McSeveney, Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman said “there must be sufficient scientific information to demonstrate the substance is safe under the intended conditions of use,” in order to be used in a packaging, and added that “the FDA continues to examine data on these compounds as it becomes available.”

10 of 30 tested products were boxed macaroni and cheese powders, 5 were sliced cheese products and the rest were natural cheese products. All the samples were sent to Belgium to be tested for 13 types of phthalates after the fats were extracted.

Only in the fat, powdered cheese mix had 4 times bigger concentration of phthalates than th natural cheeses, and 1.5 time more than processed ones. In the lab, they have also calculated phthalates levels based on the fat content of each product

To approximate a more realistic serving, the survey calculated levels of phthalates based on the fat content of each product. When doing so, the level of phthalate in a package of powdered cheese was about twice the level in the natural cheeses, and similar to sliced cheese.

Certain number of products were organic and nine were Kraft Heinz products, which is the largest seller of boxed macaroni and cheese. Referring this study Kraft Heinz said “We do not add phthalates to our products. The trace amounts that were reported in this limited study are more than 1,000 times lower than levels that scientific authorities have identified as acceptable. Our products are safe for consumers to enjoy.”

Jessie Buckley, assistant professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said it is not clear how much of the chemical we take in and are exposed to in general.

“We don’t have a lot of information on how much phthalates are in different foods. There’s no requirement to release that info,” said Buckley. Although the chemical needs little time to leave our body, it’s the constant exposure we have to worry about as it can be dangerous, especially for pregnant women.

“We don’t know what the safe limits are — but it’s prudent to limit exposure if we can,” she added.

Belliveau of the Environmental Health Strategy Center said, “We’re not alleging that every single product is unsafe … but the risk is already too high, so further reference is needed to identify where the phthalates are coming from.”