Anyone who's pondered the powder inside boxed macaroni and cheese has probably intuited that it's not terribly healthy. There's just something about powdered food products that sets off alarm bells. A new report, though, suggests a more concrete reason to be wary: That cheese powder may contain phthalates, a group of chemicals linked to birth defects and learning and behavior problems in children.
The study, from a group of organizations that make up the Coalition for Safer Food and Processing, examined 30 cheese products, which were bought in grocery stores in the United States and shipped directly to a testing lab. All but one tested positive for phthalates, with the highest concentrations found in the cheese powder in boxed mac and cheese; ten varieties of mac and cheese were tested (including some labeled organic), and all showed high levels of phthalates.
"The phthalate concentrations in powder from mac and cheese mixes were more than four times higher than in block cheese and other natural cheeses like shredded cheese, string cheese, and cottage cheese," Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, told The New York Times.
One org in the coalition, the Environmental Health Strategy Center, along with three other advocacy groups (Ecology Center, Healthy Babies Bright Futures, and Safer States), urges consumers to pressure manufacturers to ensure their products are phthalate-free. It's directing that pressure at Kraft Foods, which makes most of the two million boxes of mac and cheese sold every day in the United States. The groups believe that if Kraft takes action, smaller producers will follow. It's worked before—the company recently removed artificial dyes from products aimed at children following a petition from consumers. (Kraft did not respond to Tonic's request for comment, nor did it respond to the Times.)
Phthalates aren't intentionally added to food products. Instead, they're found in plastic materials such as tubing (where they're added to increase flexibility) used in food processing. From there, and from some types of packaging, they can seep into food. In an effort to keep children from consuming phthalates, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission has banned six types of them from children's toys. Europe has gone further, banning them from products that contact fatty food, which is especially good at absorbing phthalates. The Food and Drug Administration allows them to be used, classifying them as indirect food additives.
Research suggests that relatively small amounts of phthalates can disrupt hormone production. Specifically, they block testosterone production in pregnant women, which can affect the reproductive development of male fetuses, leading to birth defects, infertility, low sperm count, and a heightened risk of testicular cancer later in life. Exposure to phthalates in young children has been linked to learning and behavior problems, including aggression and hyperactivity.
"Mounting scientific evidence links phthalates to problems with brain development. Pregnant women's exposures to these chemicals in products and food may put their babies at higher risk for learning and developmental disabilities," Maureen Swanson, director of the Healthy Children Project at the Learning Disabilities Association of America, said in a statement.
Unfortunately, phthalates are called "the everywhere chemical" by the National Institutes of Health, which advises consumers trying to avoid exposure to "support companies committed to producing phthalate-free products." For now, that also means avoiding boxed mac and cheese. Read This Next: France is Requiring Parents to Vaccinate Their Kids
Correction (7/13/2017): A previous version of this story said that nine out of ten boxes tested contained phthalates. In fact all varieties of mac and cheese tested contained the chemicals.