Mac and Cheese Powder Tests Positive for Toxic Phthalates

Happy National Mac and Cheese Day, on July 14! No, really, you can’t make this stuff up. And no, I’d never heard of it, either.

Liza McCorkle/iStock

But this brings me to the topic of phthalates (the ph at the beginning is silent), which are a family of toxic chemical additives in plastics. These synthetic high-production industrial chemicals are used to make plastics soft and flexible, and they're a common component of artificial fragrances, inks, coatings, adhesives, and other consumer and industrial products.  

Phthalates often unintentionally—and even unknowingly—wind up in high-fat and highly processed foods, presumably as a result of U.S. Food and Drug Administration–approved uses in equipment and materials for food handling, processing, and packaging. Unfortunately, this means that all of us end up ingesting phthalate-contaminated foods.

So the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging, which includes NRDC, sent a small sample of America’s favorite foods off for laboratory testing and the results raise some flags:

  • All 10 of the powdered-cheese samples had phthalates, including DEHP.
  • Cheese powder generally had higher levels of phthalates than cheese slices.
  • Natural cheese (block, shredded string, and cottage) generally had the lowest levels of phthalates among the products tested.

While the study was of a very small sample size of products tested, it’s a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack—if you manage to find a few, then there are sure to be others. 

Once eaten, phthalates can travel through the bloodstream to critical organs. During pregnancy, the chemicals can easily move from the mother’s circulation across the placenta to expose her developing fetus directly and wind up in the mother’s breast milk.

While we don’t know everything about the toxicity of many phthalates because they have not been fully tested, what we do know is enough to raise alarm among health scientists, physicians (including pediatricians), nurses, and others.

Scientists are especially concerned about prenatal exposures to phthalates, which have been linked in human population studies to impaired neurological development in children, increased risk of IQ deficits, learning and memory impairment, and antisocial behavior. Boys exposed prenatally to phthalates are at risk of genital defects.

In response to a 2016 legal petition by NRDC and others, along with public pressure from consumer, advocacy, and health groups, the FDA announced in April 2016 that it would consider withdrawing its approval of 30 phthalates from food packaging and food-handling equipment. Safer replacement chemicals or processes are already available.

Similarly, in 2008, Congress prohibited the use of DEHP and some other phthalates in toys and child care products. In the European Union, DEHP is prohibited from child care products and cosmetics. In 2015, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) proposed prohibitions for some additional phthalates used in toys and other children’s products but has yet to finalize its proposal.

While levels of DEHP and some other phthalates in the bodies of Americans generally have declined, the levels in non-white groups are still much higher than whites, and levels in young children and reproductive-aged teenagers are almost twofold higher than adults. Moreover, levels of some phthalates like DINP are going up. A recent 2017 CPSC staff report raises concern that two phthalates—DEHP and DINP—together at levels currently detected in the bodies of Americans may be high enough to pose a risk of developmental problems from prenatal exposure (see NRDC and scientists' letter).

Unfortunately, neither the FDA action nor CPSC proposal have been finalized, leaving the public at continued risk of unsafe exposures.

What Can You Do?

  • Go to KleanUpKraft.org and sign the petition to the Kraft Heinz Company asking them to identify and eliminate phthalates in all their cheese products.
  • Tell @KraftRecipes (on Twitter and Facebook) to please get toxic chemicals like phthalates out of our foods for #NationalMacAndCheeseDay. @KleanUpKraft.org
  • Call or e-mail your favorite food brands to let them know that you care about your family’s health, and you don’t want toxic chemicals in your consumer products.
  • Help support NRDC’s work to eliminate toxic chemicals and strengthen health-protective regulations, particularly our 2016 petition to the FDA regarding food-additive phthalates.
  • Learn more about how to protect families from toxic chemicals at Safer Chemicals Health Families.
  • Take action at Mind the Store.
  • See the New York Times story on this project.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Health program

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