Chemicals in Mac and Cheese: Why I'm Not Panicking

A couple of months ago, a study on high phthalate levels in boxed macaroni and cheese dominated headlines and Facebook mom groups alike. Your emails quickly followed, and I offered reassurances and confessed that Amy’s organic whole wheat mac and cheese (with some broccoli added to the noodles during the last three minutes of cooking) would probably continue to be a Friday night staple in my home. Here’s why.

(By the way, if you’re wondering what a phthalate is, here’s what you need to know:

  • It’s pronounced f-THAL- lates.
  • Phthalates are a class of chemicals used to make plastics flexible and as lubricants in cosmetics.
  • There are many types of phthalates, among them di-(2- ethylhexyl) phthalate, or DEHP, which is the type that was found in the highest concentrations in the mac and cheese tested.
  • You won’t ever see phthalates listed on any label. )

Yes, Phthalates Are Bad

Phthalates are now widely known to be endocrine disruptors—in other words, chemicals that interfere with the function of our hormones. Phthalate exposure is linked to a range of health problems, including abnormal sexual development, reproductive birth defects, premature breast development, and increased waist circumference and insulin resistance.

Yes, Phthalates Are in Boxed Mac and Cheese

DEHP was found to be present in an average of 295 parts per billion in the powdered cheese tested (including organic brands, none of which were disclosed).

I wasn’t surprised by this, mostly because we already know that dairy is almost always contaminated with phthalates, probably from the tubing used to milk cows (yes, even cows on organic farms).

Still, the mac and cheese study showed that compared with cheese in its natural state (a block of cheddar, say), the powdered variety contained four times as much DEHP. My suspicion is that whatever equipment is used to turn the block of cheese into powdered cheese is introducing additional phthalates.

And Yet...I’m Still Feeding My Kids Mac and Cheese

Look, if you make all your parenting decisions based on health, then you shouldn’t be feeding your kids boxed macaroni and cheese, even before this study on phthalates.

Macaroni and cheese isn’t a health food and shouldn’t be confused as such, even if you’re only buying the organic kind. Unfortunately, though, I don’t think a weekly—or even nightly—mac and cheese habit is your child’s biggest source of phthalate exposure, because phthalates are truly EVERYWHERE.

Where Else You’ll Find Phthalates

In addition to dairy products, you’ll find phthalates in almost anything that smells nice (from shampoo to air fresheners to laundry detergent), nail polish, insect repellent, carpeting, vinyl flooring, the coating on wires and cables, shower curtains, raincoats, some plastic toys, your car’s steering wheel, tap water that’s been tainted by industrial waste, and in the pesticides sprayed on conventional fruits and vegetables.

In fact, about a billion pounds of phthalates are produced every year, and ninety-five percent of us have detectable levels of phthalates in our urine.

But before you completely give up, here are some practical ways to cut your family’s exposure to phthalates.

Five Ways to Reduce Phthalate Exposure

If you want to limit your family’s exposure to DEHP and other phthalates, you might try to:

  1. Cook at home. Making your own mac and cheese will likely result in fewer phthalates being ingested by your family, and this goes for other food, too. Packaged and processed foods have much more opportunity to come in contact with phthalates and other plasticizers during their production, so once again we see that fresh, whole foods are the more healthful choice.
  2. Banish dust. If you saw my recent segment on The Dr. Oz Show on this topic, you probably noticed that the toxicologist, Dr. Ginsberg, mentioned household dust as a major source of phthalate exposure, thanks to furnishings and vinyl floorings. You can cut your exposure to phthalates by using a wet-mop or vacuum daily.
  3. Avoid fragrance. When it comes to cosmetics or cleaning products, the word “fragrance” or “parfum” on a label often means the presence of phthalates. Opt for products that specify that they don’t contain synthetic fragrance, and only use natural air fresheners in your home.
  4. Toss hand-me-down toys. Several types of phthalates, including DEHP, have been banned from children’s toys, teethers, bottles, and feeding products. But these laws only took place in 2009, so you should chuck old toys that are made of soft plastic (think rubber duckies, not Legos).

Phthalates in Mac and Cheese: My Bottom Line

Because of the ubiquity of phthalates in our environment, eating boxed mac and cheese probably contributes a negligible risk. Still, the more you can cook at home, the less chemical contamination your food is likely to have. And, if you really want to avoid phthalates, keep your home as dust-free as you can, preferably by using a wet-mop or a HEPA-sealed vacuum.

So, basically, I’m saying we moms should all cook more and clean more. Ugh, and I thought I was a feminist. In all seriousness, if we can tackle the biggest sources of exposure (in this case, that’s dust and fragrances), we can relax a little on all of the stuff that’s so much harder to control, and still significantly reduce our exposure to phthalates and other environmental toxins.

Of course, what really needs to happen is stricter regulations, but until then, invest in a wet mop.

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