Making macaroni and cheese from a boxed mix is a super-easy dinner that both kids and adults love. And though you may have thought twice about the nutrition of these neon cheese powder dinners, a new report may give you yet another reason to think about ditching the box. Research conducted by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging investigated 30 different cheese products and found that boxed mac & cheese mixes contained the highest concentrations of phthalates, industrial substances that can migrate into foods and that have been found to be disrupt human hormones, potentially causing negative health outcomes like fertility issues, birth defects, behavioral problems in children and increased risk of diabetes.
Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, one of the advocacy groups that funded the study, said, "On average, the phthalate levels in the mac & cheese powder were more than four times higher than the phthalate levels in the hard block and other natural cheeses. That suggests that something about processing and packaging of cheese powder causes it to pick up more phthalates from processing equipment and packaging."
"On average, the phthalate levels in the mac and cheese powder were more than four times higher than the phthalate levels in the hard block and other natural cheeses."
Researchers tested 10 varieties of mac & cheese boxes which included major U.S. brands and both certified organic and conventional products. Out of the 10 boxes tested, two were Kraft. Brands of the other eight were not disclosed, but phthalates were found in all 10 boxes. According to Belliveau, 76 percent of all mac & cheese sold in the U.S. is from Kraft—making them the market leader by a large margin. The advocacy groups involved in the study, including the Environmental Health Strategy Center, Ecology Center, Healthy Babies Bright Futures and Safe States, are now petitioning Kraft and other brands to reduce phthalate contamination by using safer manufacturing procedures. They've created a website at kleanupkraft.org.
Phthalates contaminate several major food groups like meats, oils and fats and dairy, and are found in lower amounts in fruits and vegetables, according to a 2014 study published in Environmental Health. Dairy foods were the highest contributor in the typical U.S diet. Phthalates bind with the fat in foods, making levels higher in foods with more fat like dairy, meats and processed foods, including processed meats and cheeses.
Where are the phthalates coming from? They sneak into food from the packaging and from equipment used during manufacturing. These toxic compounds are particularly harmful to children and pregnant women. There is ongoing research on the negative health effects that phthalates might have on humans. According to Sheela Sathyanarayana, M.D., M.P.H., researcher and associate professor at the University of Washington and Seattle Children's Research Institute, even though it's hard to tell what level of phthalate exposure causes negative side effects, it's best to take precautionary measures and reduce exposure as much as possible. "In general, processed foods are likely to have higher concentrations of these chemicals—because more steps from creation to table allow for more contamination," she adds.
It's not only mac & cheese that you need to be wary of. Phthalates are found in a range of food items; limiting intake of foods with the highest concentrations can help you decrease your risk. Talk to the food manufacturer if you are concerned about the phthalate concentration in your food. Annie's, an organic food company that manufactures lots of mac & cheese products, addressed the concern in a statement on their website: "While the FDA has not yet adopted a threshold for levels of phthalates in food, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has published risk assessment data which notes a Total Daily Intake of 0.05 mg/kg of body weight. Our mac and cheese products have been tested and we know any trace of phthalates are below the EFSA standard. We are also reviewing available scientific research on the issue to ensure we are informed about the most current evidence related to phthalates and food." They are now evaluating their products and working with their suppliers to understand the sources of phthalates. Kraft has not yet responded to our emails.
Though food is a major exposure pathway, it's not the only one. Phthalates are found in a wide variety of products—including food packaging, flooring, cosmetics, household cleaners and medical devices. The U.S. government banned the use of phthalates from children's toys and any childcare products intended to be used for children under age 3, but there are no U.S. regulations on phthalates in food. According to regulations set by the European Food Safety Authority, concentrations greater than 300 μg per kg of food are considered high (that's a tiny amount: 0.00003 percent!). Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not set limits, Belliveau notes that federal scientists estimate that up to 725,000 American women of childbearing age are daily exposed to phthalates at levels that can harm the healthy development of their baby, should they be pregnant. Most people are mainly exposed to phthalates from the food they eat. Though it would be impossible to avoid all things containing phthalates—they are pretty ubiquitous—reducing your exposure and staying informed is important.
Pictured: Baked Mac & Cheese
The occasional box of mac & cheese shouldn't stress you out. Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, offered this sound advice, "The moral of this story is to eat a healthy diet and you don't have to worry about things like phthalates. What is a healthy diet? It's one in which most of the calories come from relatively unprocessed fruits, vegetables and grains, and heavily processed foods—like boxed mac & cheese—are kept to a minimum. The phthalate-in-mac-&-cheese problem is a processing issue. Phthalates leach in during processing. You love mac & cheese? Great. Make your own."
Related: Homemade Recipes for Processed Foods
Making your own also allows you to use whole-grain pasta, add in vegetables and control the ingredients and sodium. Regardless of this recent study, a healthy diet pattern should include plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy protein and fats with the occasional treat.
Read More: What Does "Healthy" Mean?
1. Use Glass Containers: Avoid packing or storing your food in plastic containers, and use glass boxes for storage. If you do use plastic, hand-wash them with cold water, because hot water (by hand or in the dishwasher) may release toxins.
2. Choose Organic: Eat more of fresh organic foods like fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy. See which foods are on "The Dirty Dozen" list to choose organic and which might be OK to eat conventional with the "Clean 15" list.
3. Make Some of Your Meals Plant-Based: Even if you choose not to completely avoid meat and dairy, allocate days where some of your meals are vegan.
Related: 1-Day 1,800-Calorie Vegan Meal Plan
4. Avoid Processed Foods: Enjoy home-cooked meals where you're prepping the ingredients. Fewer processed ingredients mean less contact with equipment and packaging that can increase phthalates in foods.
5. Consider Lower Fat: Foods that are high in fat can have more phthalates in them. Limit your intake of these products, including meats and dairy which have high fat content. Sathyanarayana suggests consuming low-fat dairy products like skim milk and low-fat cheeses. (One caveat: fat is required for the absorption and utilization of vitamins A, D, E and K, and some studies have found that whole milk may be a healthier option.)