Organic Consumers Association

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Organic Mac ‘n’ Cheese May Contain Plastic Chemicals

Food is one of the foundational pillars of good health, providing your body with the energy, vitamins, essential fats and proteins needed to thrive. Eating a variety of whole foods helps provide you with nutrients for good health. One of the leading risk factors to disability is poor diet choices,1 and those poor choices lead to expensive health care costs.

Eating well supports your immune system, slows the aging process, helps prevent many types of chronic diseases and increases your energy level and mood. “Let food by thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” This quote from Hippocrates may be more applicable today than it was when he was quoted, long before processed foods, sodas and energy drinks became the norm.

I’ve been passionate about using food to optimize my own health for over 50 years. Nutrition is clearly a primary strategy for taking control of your health, as you simply cannot out-exercise your mouth. Despite an excellent exercise program, sleeping eight hours a night and staying well hydrated, if your diet is poor, you won’t reap the full benefits of your efforts and may increase your potential risk for suffering from high blood pressurediabetesand impaired immune function.

A recent study has found one more reason to steer clear of boxed and processed foods, finding chemicals banned from children’s toys a decade ago in high concentrations in food mixes made with powdered cheese, even those marketed as organic.2

Unexpected Chemicals in the Mac and Cheese

Traditionally a favorite food of children, food manufacturers have reduced a dish once made with real cheese and heavy cream to a box of just-add-water-and-boil powdered cheese. Although even in the original form, mac and cheese boosts your blood glucose and insulin levels, the processed and boxed version adds further insult to injury with endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

In a study evaluating 30 different cheese products, all but one were found to be tainted with phthalates. The highest concentrations were found in cheese powder in boxed mixes of macaroni and cheese. The report was conducted by an independent laboratory and paid for by environmental advocacy groups.3 Although several chemicals that fall into the phthalate group have been banned from children’s toys,4 the U.S. has not banned their presence in products that come into contact with foods.5,6

By comparison, Europe has banned most phthalates that come into contact with fatty foods, including dairy products.7 In a scientific review,8 researchers found dairy products were the highest source of food phthalate exposure for infants and women of reproductive age. For this reason, the environmental group chose to have cheese products tested for phthalate levels.

Results show the average total concentration of phthalates in cheese powder sold in boxed macaroni and cheese products was more than four times higher than found in natural unprocessed (not imitation) cheeses.9 Processed cheese slices had three times more phthalates than natural cheese. Even after adjusting for percent fat content in the cheese powder and processed slices, these products still averaged twice the amount of phthalates than natural cheese.

Even milk packaged in glass may have passed through plastic tubes after milking the cow, bringing phthalates right along with it. Robin Whyatt, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University Medical Center and lead author in several groundbreaking studies on phthalates, explained:10

“Milking machines use a lot of plastic and DEHP is free and very lipophilic (fat soluble), and milk is full of lipids, so it just pulls the DEHP out of the plastic tubing and into the milk. So my guess would be that milk is a pretty important source of dietary exposure to DEHP.”

Phthalates at Home

While phthalate exposure from food and personal care products is concerning enough, your exposure doesn’t end there. Multiple studies, by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)11 and independent researchers,12 have found phthalates in the dust residing on your furniture and your flooring.

Combining the results of two dozen dust studies analyzing 45 compounds, researchers found phthalates topped the list in residential dust particles.13 Recent research now links the chemicals found in dust in your home with a growing obesity epidemic.14

Taking dust samples from 11 homes in North Carolina, the researchers tested the extracts on a mouse pre-fat cell model. Although a small study, seven of the 11 samples triggered the cells to develop into mature fat cells and accumulate fat.15 Nine of the samples triggered cell division, developing a larger pool of pre-fat cells.

The research suggests a combination of the endocrine disrupting chemicals in your home may promote this accumulation and growth of fat cells.16 Some experts estimate that children may be consuming as much as 50 milligrams of dust each day. However, amounts as low as 3 micrograms triggered measurable effects in the study. Marsha Wills-Karp, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, commented on the results of this study:17

"There is accumulating evidence exposure to these agents might lead to disease we are seeing in modern cities, such as obesity, asthma and autism. All of those have had a pretty sharp rise over the past 30 years. The question is how strongly [are these compounds] linked to disease."

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