Americans sure love their boxed macaroni and cheese, having bought nearly 710 million boxes of it in 2012. It’s a cheap, quick, and easy meal, after all. But new research finds proof of potentially harmful chemicals in this popular, processed comfort food.
The Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging’s study tested phthalate levels in 30 cheese products, including natural cheeses, processed sliced cheeses, and processed mac and cheese powders. Phthalates were detected in all but one of the items, with the powders showing the highest levels.
Synonymous with “plasticizers,” phthalates are a group of chemicals that make plastics softer and more flexible. They’re found in common household items such as soaps and cosmetics, and they can also be present in the things we eat. Phthalates can seep into edibles at any point during the processing, packaging, and preparation stages (think foods or drinks running through plastic tubes during manufacturing). Since these chemicals aren’t intentionally added, they’re classified as “indirect” food additives (and therefore do not appear on ingredient lists). The study notes that phthalates are often found in processed items, as well as high-fat foods (the chemicals are fat-soluble).
Over the years, scientific research has linked a range of specific phthalates to a number of health problems. These include male genital birth defects and testosterone production problems, behavioral issues, breast cancer, and asthma. Congress has banned several types of phthalates from children’s toys and various feeding and teething items. One of those prohibited phthalates is DEHP, which the cheese study researchers detected more often and at higher amounts than any other phthalate. The Food and Drug Administration has not yet banned these chemicals from existing in food products.
The study—believed to be the first of its kind in detecting phthalate levels in mac and cheese powder—found that the powders had four times more phthalates than the natural cheeses. The processed cheese slices had about triple the phthalates than natural cheeses. The 30 tested items weren’t specifically called out by brand and product name, but according to The New York Times, nine were made by Kraft; the company did not respond to The New York Times’ request for comment.
“Our belief is that it’s in every mac ‘n’ cheese product — you can’t shop your way out of the problem,” said Mike Belliveau, executive director of Environmental Health Strategy Center to The New York Times.
In addition to EHSC, the study was funded by advocacy groups Ecology Center, Healthy Babies Bright Futures, and Safer States.
All this being said (and with National Macaroni and Cheese Day tomorrow), now’s the perfect time to try making homemade mac and cheese. Check out some of our recipes, which include Lobster Macaroni and Cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano Macaroni and Cheese, and Guinness and Steak Mac and Cheese.