Macaroni 'n' chemicals? That's what a new study is claiming about one of my go-to dinners for the kids.
The Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging reports that inside those familiar boxes is something other than cheesy goodness: phthalates. We know from previous research that phthalates can adversely affect metabolism, fertility, prenatal development, early childhood development, and the immune system. Unfortunately, this chemical is widely found in everyday household products such as plastics, rubber, coatings, adhesives, sealants, printing inks, and fragrance, according to the site.
Kids may also be exposed to this less-than-appetizing "ingredient" in their mac and cheese, due to the processing, packaging, and preparation of the product, according to the research. In fact, phthalates were detected in 29 out of 30 varieties and brands of cheese products tested—including some labeled organic! Nine of the products are made by Kraft, but the coalition has not released the names of the other brands involved.
According to the research, "Average phthalate levels were more than four times higher in macaroni and cheese powder samples than in hard blocks and other natural cheese."
Alarmingly, as The New York Times reports, the Food and Drug Administration has not banned phthalates in foods in the U.S., although the chemical is banned in Europe.
Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, told the Times, "Our belief is that it's in every mac 'n' cheese product—you can't shop your way out of the problem." He added that consumers must contact manufacturers and urge them to find out how phthalates are getting into their food products, and take steps to eliminate it immediately.
It's important to point out that powdered cheese is what was tested. But the Times reports that phthalates can be found in other fatty dairy products as well as other foods.
USA Today reports that Kraft denies using the chemicals. "We do not add phthalates to our products," Kraft spokesperson Lynne Galia told the outlet. "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."
Registered dietitian Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, an educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition, says parents need to focus less on fear—and more on healthy foods. "It's definitely worrisome, and it's a good reminder that we should center most of our family's diet around largely whole, unprocessed foods. Packaged foods are a fact of life for most families including mine, but the bottom line is that you want your kids eating real cheese much more often than cheese powder anyway. In our house, boxed mac is an occasional treat, and I also make the homemade kind." (Try her recipe for homemade mac and cheese.)
Check out these tips for avoiding exposure to phthalates for your family. And um, maybe make chicken nuggets tonight?