Around 10 years ago, chemicals called phthalates were banned from children’s toys. But researchers recently detected them in food children (and all of us) commonly eat: macaroni and cheese. Phthalates can disrupt hormones and have been connected to birth defects, but were found in high amounts in the powdered cheese common in macaroni and cheese mixes.
Researchers tested 30 cheese products and found phthalates in 29 of them; in powdered cheese, phthalate amounts were four times higher than in other cheese products. The potentially harmful chemicals are used in plastics or packaging ink, so while they’re not intentionally added to food, they can migrate into products via food processing equipment or packaging.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not banned phthalates in food. But according to the research summary, phthalates threaten the health of pregnant women and children. Researchers said there are multiple studies that connect prenatal exposure to the chemicals with with abnormal brain development. The New York Times said phthalates have been connected with behavior and learning issues in children.
The researchers decided to test cheese after a 2014 scientific review said dairy products are “the greatest source of dietary exposure” to DEHP – which the researchers describe as the phthalate most widely restricted – for babies and women who could get pregnant. In this recent research, among all 30 products, DEHP was detected most commonly and in higher average concentrations than other phthalates.
The researchers are calling on Kraft to take action; nine of the tested products were made by the company. The Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging, a group of nonprofit organizations, released the research summary on the website #KleanUpKraft in time for National Macaroni and Cheese Day today.
Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign director Mike Schade said in a statement, “The good news is that there are safer, affordable alternatives to phthalates. Kraft should identify and eliminate any phthalates in its cheese products by ensuring that safer alternatives are used in food processing and packaging materials throughout its supply chain.”