You won’t find sex altering chemicals on the ingredient list but they’re in there. An alarming study released this week analyzed 30 popular cheese products and found the bright orange powder in boxed macaroni and cheese had the highest levels. The Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging sent samples off to an independent lab in Belgium for testing.
After analyzing different products including natural cheese in block and string varieties, processed cheese slices and powdered cheese, the study found evidence of endocrine disrupting chemicals called phthalates in 29 out of 30 samples. The more processed the cheese sampled, the higher the concentration found. Natural cheese had the smallest amounts and cheese powder had the most.
Phthalates aren’t added directly to food, which is why you won’t find them listed on the package. Instead, they come from the machines and mechanical equipment the food travels through in processing. “They are used in the plastic tubing, the plastic gloves, the gaskets all along the food supply chain.” Even the cheese varieties labeled “Organic” were found to be affected because the organic labeling laws do not address chemicals added in processing.
Endocrine disruptors attack the hormonal system in humans after being easily soaked up by fat cells in an unbroken stream from plastics to food to people. High levels of these disruptors are related to fertility issues in both male and female adults. Children exposed during pregnancy have been diagnosed with neurodevelopment and behavior issues. The effects in fish are even more dramatic.
Endocrine disruptors in the water supply have feminized one out of every five male fish studied. The same chemicals known to cause early puberty and infertility in humans have wiped out entire colonies of fish. Instead of dying all at once, “the numbers get lower and lower until the whole colony is dead.” Male fish are less aggressive and have lower sperm count. They even “tend to make female proteins and produce eggs.”
A large number of phthalates were banned for use in children’s toys in 2008, but not from any of the other places these chemicals are commonly found such as adhesives, rubber compounds, soap, ink and fragrances as well as many types of plastics. The recent study looked at 30 different cheese products. The natural cheese had the lowest levels and powder cheese the highest, with almost four times the amount found in unprocessed samples.
Kraft Heinz is the biggest seller of the popular side dish and accounts for three fourths of all box macaroni and cheese sales. Understandably, they are pushing back hard in response to this study. In a statement, the manufacturer proclaims, “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.”
While their products are within legal tolerance, whether they are “safe for consumers” or not is a question that will take a very long time to answer. In the meantime, they do have a point which they are not presenting directly because it does not help the image any. What they want you to realize without telling you is that their product is NO MORE DANGEROUS than any other product, a very subtle distinction.
An assistant professor from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Jessie Buckley, explains we don’t even know how much and how many endocrine disrupting chemicals like phthalates we encounter in our daily lives. “We don’t have a lot of information on how much phthalates are in different foods. There’s no requirement to release that info.” She goes on to say these chemicals leave the body in as little as a few hours, but the real concern is the overall load of toxins absorbed from constant exposure. Pregnant women are especially concerned due to the harm that could come to the developing fetus. “We don’t know what the safe limits are — but it’s prudent to limit exposure if we can,” she added.
A related article in Popular Science spotlights the danger is all around us. “The real issue is that these chemicals are ubiquitous, so mac-n-cheese is likely not your only source of exposure. If you wear perfume, wash your clothes with detergents containing fragrance, breathe while inside a room with vinyl floors, eat a container of jelly, or chow down on a carton of vegan ice cream, you’re probably getting some phthalates, too. How can we not, given that phthalates have been found in spices, seafood, fruit juice, and beer? The mac-n-cheese report did not test for the presence of phthalates in the macaroni, but it’s likely that they too would have tested positive—phthalates have been found in bread and cereal products as well. Even if you buy products in glass jars, you’re likely getting exposed when you consume them: one study found that glass jars of olives and peanut butter contain phthalates—they migrate from the little plastic gaskets that keep those jars sealed.”
A representative of the Environmental Health Strategy Center said, “We’re not alleging that any single product is unsafe … but the risk is already too high, so further research is needed to identify where the phthalates are coming from.” A petition started by the group sponsoring the cheese study is asking Kraft Heinz to “identify the source of chemicals and remove them from the food packaging process” but that is only a drop in the bucket. American consumers should be demanding the alphabet agencies already charged with protecting public health and safety to do their jobs and keep these chemicals out of every step in our food chain.