Being a Minnesotan, cheese is my favorite food group…yes, it’s a food group. And it’s the fat in cheese that makes it so damn good (any humbolt fog fans out there?).
But the fat in cheese doesn’t just give this food its creamy texture, flavor, and consistency. Fat easily stores contaminants, specifically plasticizer chemicals, called phthalates (THAL-ates) which are used in tubing in the manufacturing process, packaging and processing equipment like conveyor belts.
This intersection between cheese, phthalate exposure and fat, was exposed in a new study released by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging. This coalition of public health organizations tested 30 cheese products for 13 different phthalates and the results were compelling enough to appear in today’s New York Times: “The Chemicals in Your Mac N Cheese“.
What the Test Results Found
1 – Phthalates were detected in nearly every cheese product tested (29 of 30 brands tested). The testing found ten different phthalates in all, with up to six in a single product;
2 – Average phthalate levels were more than four times higher in macaroni and cheese powder samples than in hard blocks & other natural cheese, in fat of products tested;
3 – DEHP, the most widely restricted phthalate, was found more often and at a much higher average concentration than any other phthalate, among all the cheese products tested.
4 – Organic brands also tested positive for phthalates, showing a problem with the materials used in the manufacturing equipment and packaging.
5 – Several of the phthalates found in cheese have been banned in the U.S. from children’s toys, teething rings and Europe has banned most phthalates from materials that come into contact with fatty foods such as dairy and cheese products.
6 – Studies find that diary products are the largest source of phthalate exposure for infants and women of child bearing age.
How Phthalates Get Into Cheese
Phthalates are used to make plastic tubes in manufacturing facilities pliable and bendy, food processing equipment (conveyor belts, seals and gaskets), and they are also commonly used in food packaging, providing multiple routes for contamination along the supply chain. Chemicals used in plastic tubing and processing equipment migrate from the machines into the dairy product, attach to the fat, and then end up in our favorite cheese products. And as the test results found, powder cheese products were the worst offenders.
Why We Should Care / Health Impacts
As I mentioned above, phthalates are a problematic class of chemicals, with a large body of science showing cause for concern. This is particularly true for infants, children and pregnant women. Maureen Swanson, a longtime friend and colleague from the Learning Disabilities Association of America said it well,
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.”
According to the study, approximately 725,000 women of childbearing age in the United States (raises hand) are exposed to unhealthy amounts of phthalates through their daily dietary exposures.
First and foremost, this isn’t an issue consumers can solve on their own. We need the processed food industry to recognize and act on phthalates used in the manufacturing process and use the safer alternatives that are readily available. According to research by the coalition, many non-phthalate materials exist and could be swapped both for the milking equipment and inks and glues used in packaging.
You can help by calling on Kraft to eliminate phthalates from their Mac n’ Cheese HERE.
And while we’re working towards a systemic shift in the food industry, you can:
- Avoid powdered cheese products all together
- Opt for safer beauty products, formulated without fragrances (my favorites HERE)
- Stop wearing perfume or cologne
- Minimize your consumption of processed food and aim for a healthy balanced diet