You may have seen the recent news reports in the New York Times about the presence of plasticizer chemicals, known as phthalates, in boxed macaroni and cheese products. Whipped up in minutes, boxed mac and cheese is a staple for many parents. If you’re a parent now pondering the piles of mac and cheese your kids ate over the last year, you may be wondering about phthalates and how they come to be in food. We sat down with Public Health’s toxicologist, Dr. Shirlee Tan, Ph.D. to learn more.
Dr. Tan, what are phthalates?
Phthalates are a class of chemicals used in plastics, rubber, coatings, adhesives, sealants, printing inks, and fragrance. Over 12 billion pounds are estimated to have been produced by the global chemical industry in 2014.
How do they get into food?
Phthalates become food additives indirectly, when they leach into food through contact, especially fatty foods. They are often components of food production equipment (e.g., pvc tubing, conveyor belts) or food packaging, so that is why processed and packaged foods have higher levels of them than fresh foods.
Where does this information about mac and cheese come from?
This week results were released from a study performed on 30 different conventional and organic cheese product items. The cheeses were analyzed for 13 different phthalates. Cheese powder had the highest average concentrations of phthalates followed by sliced cheese. In other words, the more the cheese was processed, the greater the concentration of phthalates in the final product. A summary of the study can be found here.
What are the potential health effects?
The health effects of low levels of phthalates in humans are not yet fully known, but their effects on the endocrine system in animals have been well documented, where they can block the production of testosterone, leading to abnormal male development.
How can parents of young children, or people who are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant reduce exposure to phthalates?
- Minimize the amount of processed and packaged food you eat.
- Eat a diet rich in fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables.
- Choose low-fat dairy products.
- Avoid plastic food containers and utensils. Use glass, stainless steel, ceramic, or wood to hold and store foods. For baby bottles and sippy cups, if you choose plastic make sure it is made from hard polycarbonate plastics.
- Avoid plastics for hot foods and liquids.
In your home:
- Avoid phthalates in house dust that can come from furniture, upholstery, carpets and other sources by leaving shoes at the door, and vacuuming and wet dusting/damp mopping regularly.
- Avoid fragrances. Scented personal care products, cleaners, detergents, and air fresheners contain phthalates.
As a consumer:
- If you have a favorite boxed mac and cheese brand, call the company and ask them whether there are phthalates in their products. Encourage them to find out and ensure they are kept out of their food products.
- Ask the customer service department at your local grocery store to ensure that they are selling mac and cheese that does not contain phthalates.
- Write a letter to the FDA asking them to consider banning food-contact-associated uses of phthalates. A petition to do so has been filed filed by non-profit groups and is currently being considered by the FDA. Comments are being accepted at Docket number: FDA-2016-F-1253.
What would you say to parents who have given their child many, many servings of boxed mac and cheese. Should they be worried?
It’s impossible to know the impact of eating 100 or 1000 boxes of mac and cheese on any one individual. As with most chemical exposures, there is no easy way to determine the specific exposure amount that will make a specific person sick. Chemical effects depend on individual differences, how one is exposed, how often, how much, what other chemicals a person is exposed to and other stressors to which one is exposed. The very best thing all people can do is to limit their intake of phthalates from all sources – and there are many other sources, in addition to food. For example, they can be found in personal care products, scented perfumes, cleaners, airfresheners, vinyl flooring, paints, and many other places. Consumers should limit their exposures to phthalates when possible, but it is also important to understand that it’s okay to eat some mac and cheese now and then.
Originally posted on July 14, 2017