A new report suggests that high levels of phthalates have been found in boxed macaroni and cheese and other cheese product, despite recent concerns that the chemical may disrupt hormones and impede childhood development.
According to a study published last week by the Coalition for Safer Processing & Packaging, phthalates were detected in almost every kind of powdered, processed and natural cheese product the researchers tested.
Six types of phthalates are currently banned from children’s products in the United States. However, those products do not include food items, and the popularity of quick macaroni and cheese meals in the U.S. are well known and they are often marketed for children.
Researchers tested 30 varieties of cheese used in 40 products, including fresh, processed and powdered cheese varieties for phthalate chemicals, a chemical commonly used to manufacture plastics, rubber, coatings, adhesives, sealants, and fragrances. At least 39 of the 40 tested positive for phthalates, with up to 10 different phthalates detected.
The findings indicated the average levels of phthalates in powdered cheese, used to flavor macaroni and cheese products, were four times higher than in natural hard blocks of cheese and other natural cheeses.
Among 10 powdered cheese varieties tested, average levels of phthalates were near 1,000 mg/kg. The highest levels tested at more than 2,500 mg/kg.
All 10 powdered cheese varieties, common in macaroni and cheese foods, had high levels of phthalates, even in products labeled organic. Nine of the 10 products tested were made by Kraft, the largest seller of macaroni and cheese products.
Phthalates are in nearly every macaroni and cheese product, according to the findings. Therefore, researchers warn that a consumer simply can’t shop their way out of the problem, considering Kraft products make up more than 75 percent of the macaroni and cheese market.
Processed cheese had three times the phthalates of natural cheese. Processed cheese products had an average level of phthalates at more than 500 mg/kg and natural cheeses, like cottage cheese and string cheese, had an average of 216 mg/kg of phthalates.
Additionally, DEHP, the most widely restricted phthalate, was found at much higher concentrations than any other phthalate. It was also found more often in the products.
Phthalates are known to disrupt hormones and affect the health of humans. The chemicals have been linked to reproductive problems, increasing a woman’s chance of fibroids and endometriosis and miscarriage. Studies have also linked the chemicals to lower IQ in children if exposed during pregnancy and reduced male fertility.
Phthalates are not intentionally added to food. Studies indicate the chemical can leach into food during processing, packaging and preparation; thus becoming indirect food additives.
Researchers said the study was prompted by a 2014 review which indicated dairy products were the greatest source of dietary exposure to phthalates for women and children. Other studies have linked phthalate exposure to increased risk of diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure.
The global chemical industry produced 12 billion pounds of phthalates in 2014 alone. More than 700 million boxes macaroni and cheese using powdered cheese were sold in the U.S. in 2012.