One of America’s favorite comfort foods has just been linked to potentially harmful chemicals that were previously found in children’s teething rings and rubber ducks before being banned. The chemical in question is phthalates, and the food that they’re found in? Boxed macaroni & cheese.

These phthalates have been linked to increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure in men, along with obesity, thyroid abnormalities, reduced sperm count and mobility and risks to pregnant women and young children. To make matters worse, some of the brands that were tested were labeled ‘organic’.

What Are Phthalates

Phthalates are a group of chemicals that are used in the making of plastic to make them more flexible and softer. They are often called plasticizers, but many other chemicals are also referred to by the same name.  In cosmetics, phthalates help chemical components better bind to each other. Unfortunately, a growing body of research links them to genital birth defects, the disruption of some hormones, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems.

Phthalates are used in a range of products, including:

  • polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, which is a specific type of plastic used in some products, such as shower curtains
  • medical plastics, such as PVC IV bags and tubes
  • children’s toys and supplies
  • cosmetics, such as nail polish and perfumes

Phthalates bind with fats, which is why they can build up in fatty foods, including infant formula, meats, and fast food.

While these chemicals aren’t actually added to the food itself, it is very easy for the chemical to find its way into our meals. Phthalates are not chemically connected with the plastic products that contain them, which means they can leach out of the products. They can also be found in plastic tubing and conveyor belts that come into contact with the food during processing.

Some more common places you might run into phthalates are in vinyl floorings, aftershave, nail polish, and increasingly in food, but the reason for them being there is unclear.

Phthalates and Me: Chemical Effects On Our Bodies

As mentioned previously, phthalates have been linked to more than one serious illness or disease yet they are still being used in a wide variety of items we come into contact with on a daily basis. In fact, in 2003 the European Union decided to ban phthalates in cosmetics sold in Europe, but they are still readily found in the U.S. and Canada.

Phthalates and Cancer:

One major concern with phthalates however is its link to cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) as a possible cause of cancer. The US National Toxicology Program (NTP) says that DEHP “is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”.

Phthalates and Hormone Disruption

Phthalates have also been shown to block testosterone production. These ‘gender-bending’ chemicals have also been linked to genital birth defects on infant boys and can affect the development of a baby after just five days in the womb.

Phthalates In Macaroni & Cheese

A study which was conducted by the Flemish Institute for Technological Research, and independent lab in Belgium, tested 10 different varieties of boxed macaroni & cheese. They found high levels of phthalates in all the products tested, including those marked as organic.

They looked for 13 different types of phthalates and found all but 2. In some products, they found up to 6 types of the harmful chemical in question.While the study did not disclose exactly which products were being tested, 9 of the 10 cheese products were produced by Kraft.

Why test cheese products you ask? The researchers referenced a recent study that concluded that dairy products were the greatest source of dietary exposure to the phthalate DEHP.

A spokesperson for Kraft had this to say after the study was released:

‘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.’

Based on a third-generation reproductive study on rats, the European Food Safety Administration set a safe exposure level of .05 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day for adults.

As Popular Science points out – using the report’s data, that means the average American woman would have to consume 37 boxes of powdered mac-n-cheese, and the average American man would have to consume around 42 boxes of macaroni & cheese—a day—to hit a problematic dose. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified a much lower threshold for the level of phthalates an infant should consume— 0.02 milligrams/day/kilogram of body weight. Using this guideline in the unlikely event that your 4 month old ate an entire box of powdered macaroni & cheese, they could exceed the recommended limit.

What is important to keep in mind however, is that our limited understanding of how phthalates accumulate in the body and how our increasing exposure from multiple sources play a part in our total exposure to this potentially harmful compound.

Take a moment to reflect on your daily activities: Do you wash your clothes with fragranced detergents, wear perfume? Use fragranced lotions or soaps?  Have a plastic shower curtain? Eat meats and cheeses? Chances are you are getting exposed to multiple sources of phthalates.

The total amount of these daily activities and how they contribute to your exposure is difficult to measure, which is why EPA estimates have found that everyone from infants to adolescents routinely exceed their recommended threshold.

Where Are Phthalates Hiding

Phthalates seem to be hiding in products everywhere. While they won’t be listed in the ingredients of the foods you buy, you can avoid them by avoiding plastic altogether. Phthalates love to attach themselves to fat, which means there is a better chance of phthalates being found in foods like cheeses and meats that have been exposed to plastic at any point.

They are also found in many other products from laundry detergent, cars (did you know that the ‘new car smell’ is actually phthalates?), and even sex toys.

Best Ways To Avoid Phthalates

While it may seem impossible, here are some great ways you can avoid this dangerous chemical.

Avoid Fragrance

You won’t see phthalates listed as ingredients in your favorite products, but there is one thing you can look out for. Any items that contain ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’, almost always contain phthalates. Look for ‘phalate-free’, ‘scented by essential oils’, or ‘no synthetic fragrance’ on the label.

Plastic Codes

Any plastic products with recycling codes 3 and 7 may contain phthalates or BPA. Look for plastic with recycling codes 1, 2, or 5.

Old Plastic Toys

Thankfully, new legislature has banned the use of phthalates in children’s products, including teethers, bottles, and feeding products. Avoid exposure from any old products that could have been made with phthalates.

Avoid Plastic Altogether

The best practice is to avoid plastics altogether, even BPA-free plastics. There are so many better products out there that are reusable and not dangerous to our health.

Eat Organic

Phthalates are used in pesticides and are also found in sewage sludge that is used in conventional agriculture, neither of which are allowed on organic agriculture. Pesticide-treated feed is also not permitted for organic meat and dairy production.

Use A Water Filter

Granular activated carbon filters should remove DEHP, which is the type of phthalate used in water pipes. Unfortunately, some sources claim that a percentage of water may pass through the carbon without filtration. A nano-filtration system is more expensive but possibly more reliable way to filter out phthalates.

Shop With Purpose

Many manufacturers have changed their policies and ingredients because smart consumers choose to spend their money on products that are good for them instead of those that would harm them. Sometimes the only way to make these companies listen is by playing with their bottom line.

Now, while it may seem hard to believe that anything as innocent as macaroni & cheese can seem dangerous, the sad truth is that it is. When we start to manufacture food instead of making it, we leave ourselves open to potential dangers that we can easily avoid.