Within the last month, my husband subscribed to The Seattle Times as his way of supporting journalism. He also got a free Seahawks sweatshirt, so that might have sweetened the deal, but either way, we are getting daily deliveries of real news printed on paper. While there are many articles written locally, I’ve noticed that New York Times articles get republished as well. Without this, I might not have read this NYT article titled “Phthalates found in powdered mac-and-cheese mixes.”
Basically, chemicals that were banned from children’s toys years ago are showing up in kid-favorite foods like macaroni and cheese made from powder. The phthalates migrate from packaging into the food, and cause issues with hormones, birth defects, and learning or behavior issues.
The article states “Now a new study of 30 cheese products has detected phthalates in all but one of the samples tested, with the highest concentrations found in the highly processed cheese powder in boxed mac and cheese mixes.”
The article declines to name brands or exact products, but the redacted reports are shared on a site that doesn’t leave much doubt in your mind. The study seems to leave many questions unanswered, and the comment section on the NYT post is rich with people arguing every angle of phthalates. See what we almost miss with our old fashioned paper delivery? Despite the flaws, the article got me thinking (and doing my own research!)
So what the heck are phthalates, and what are they doing in our food?
Phthalates are added to plastics to “to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity.” At first I wondered if these were the same chemicals used in Subway sandwiches and yoga mats that got the spotlight a few years ago, and to be clear, they are not. Our world is just filled with many chemicals that we probably don’t want in our food. Phthalates seem to be everywhere, and the abstract of this article published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information drew a connection between diet and phthalate exposure, stating “Diets high in meat and dairy consumption resulted in two-fold increases in exposure.” Maybe it’s not entirely the fault of the powdered cheese mix packaging, and the dairy itself is partially responsible for the study’s results.
This all sounded related to another mac and cheese story I heard at the North American Vegetarian Society annual conference from presenter, Dr. Neal Barnard (he shared much of the same great info on the Rich Roll Podcast – check it out!) In discussing some of the research behind his new book, The Cheese Trap, he spoke of a young woman who was gifted a case of Kraft mac and cheese, and ate a box each day for the better part of two months. Her health deteriorated, and after being diagnosed with endometriosis, she was scheduled for a hysterectomy. With nothing to lose, she took a friend’s advice about trying a whole food plant based diet for a bit, and within weeks (before the life-altering surgery), her issues seemed to be resolved!
Based on everything I’ve learned, dairy AND plastic chemicals don’t belong in our food. Even if these processed foods are “kid-approved” or priced right, the long term impact isn’t worth it. So that brings me back to the article from the NYT. To curb your phthalate-from-powdered-mac-and-cheese-mix intake, the article provided some solutions. The solutions were specified for pregnant women and young children, but everyone could stand to be a bit healthier, right?
I wholeheartedly agree with the first recommendation to eat more fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, and there were other tips for minimizing phthalate exposure by using glass or stainless steel storage containers and water bottles I can also get behind.
The author’s second bullet was to “Choose low-fat dairy products such as skim milk and low fat cheeses…” and this made me want to rip my newspaper in half. Why was this recommended if science shows us that all dairy products can be harmful? When Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr. was interviewed years ago, he was asked about different types of dairy, and he responded, “It’s a question of whether you want to be shot or hung.” To be fair, he used the same response when someone asked if chicken is better than beef in the new movie, What The Health, but he’s a well-respected MD and he gets his point across quite clearly in both cases.
It should give anyone pause if the quick solution is swapping out full fat dairy products for skim milk and low fat cheese. In fact, replacing phthalates with dairy or meat are equally disheartening, and they are both tied to the leading causes of death, including cardiovascular issues, cancer, and diabetes. Luckily, there is still a way to enjoy creamy, delicious mac and cheese.