Macaroni and cheese is one of the most popular meals in America, not to mention a staple on restaurant kids’ menus and in school cafeterias. It’s probably a favorite of moms, too, because it’s easy to fix and children love it.
Many restaurants serve their own house-made versions, and whole towns have been known to put on events dedicated to the dish, such as the Annual Macaroni & Cheese Festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
But as it turns out, America’s favorite comfort food has hidden toxic chemicals…
The food that pulled us through
the Depression, now tainted
This delectable recipe dates back to 1769 and was reportedly served by President Thomas Jefferson at an 1802 state dinner. It became a popular convenience food when Kraft Foods introduced its boxed macaroni and cheese mix in 1937.
At the time, America was in the midst of the Great Depression. The 19-cent box served four people, propelling the food to instant popularity. Over eight million boxes sold that first year. 19 cents was equivalent to about $3.30 in 2017 dollars.
The most popular version of mac and cheese still comes from Kraft. It’s a simple box of dried pasta, packaged cheese, and step-by-step directions that call for the addition of milk and butter.
The U.S. has such a love affair with this dish that it has even been cited as one of the reasons behind the steady growth of cheese consumption in this country. Macaroni and cheese is delicious to almost anyone, much the same way as all cheesy, starchy foods. It also has a fairly large number of calories – which some say supports our primal need to ingest fattening food.
Another study says we love mac and cheese because of the happy memories it evokes, usually because most of us were given mac and cheese as kids by loving parents.
But according to a recent study by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging, high concentrations of phthalates have been detected in the cheese powder of macaroni and cheese. And given the many health conditions phthalates lead to, this is tremendous cause for concern.
Why you shouldn’t lick plastic
Mac and cheese isn’t the only cheesy offender. Any cheese packaged in plastic is likely to be contaminated. Block and string cheese along with processed cheese slices and even natural cheese appear to have overly high phthalate levels. Natural cheeses recorded the lowest levels, whereas processed cheese products clocked in at the highest.
Phthalates are bad news for a lot of reasons. They’re a major building block in non-food substances such as plastic tubes, plastic gloves, and gaskets. You’re not meant to consume them, but eating foods that came into contact with plastics containing phthalates appears to be a major source of exposure. Meaning, phthalates go from plastics to food and from food into people. A phthalate you may have heard of is BPA, widely used in soft drink, juice and water bottles.
Once exposed, phthalates wreak havoc in your endocrine system. According to the National Institutes of Health, they’re a major disruptor to your body’s hormonal system. They’re also quickly absorbed by fat cells.
Evidence suggests that people with high levels of phthalate exposure are more likely to have fertility issues, behavioral issues, brain development issues (especially for children exposed in utero), and a higher likelihood of developing cancer. As reported by the National Toxicology Program, the phthalate DEHP is particularly likely to cause cancer.
The analysis of mac and cheese products found that ten of the biggest offenders were macaroni and cheese powders. Other phthalate-containing cheeses were sliced cheese products, natural cheeses (both hard and shredded), string cheese, and cottage cheeses.
But it was the powdered cheese mix of the mac and cheese dishes that had four times more phthalates than the natural cheeses, including some brands labeled organic.
Time to go beyond the “SAD” diet
One of the problems with consumer safety in the U.S. is the popular attitude that industrial chemicals are safe until proven otherwise. That’s why, in 2008, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned several phthalates from children’s products – there was too much evidence the chemicals were affecting children’s hormonal and reproductive development.
And while the original cause for the phthalate ban was focused on kids putting their mouths on a lot of plastic toys, further research showed that phthalates had permeated our foods as well as many cosmetic creams used primarily by women.
When researchers compared 17 different studies on various diets, they found (unsurprisingly) that a diet high in fruits and vegetables had a much lower, safer level of phthalates than did a diet high in meat and dairy. And while the middle level between the two diets – considered the standard American diet – was deemed safe for adults, the phthalate level was not safe for infants.
Easy ways to avoid phthalate contamination
Even now, despite tests and bans and studies, experts say there isn’t a lot of information on what safe limits we can follow when it comes to phthalates.
In my book, that means it’s best to limit exposure. So even though it’s been reported that the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging is petitioning large brand mac and cheese makers to identify the source of chemicals and take them out of their food packaging process… I’d steer clear of it altogether.
That means you’re left with two options. Give up packaged, Big Food cheese completely and embrace a vegan or plant-based diet – which has its own merits and challenges.
Or, if you still want to enjoy the satisfaction of cheesy, gooey goodness on your dinner table, buy your cheese straight from the farm as often as possible. This eliminates the problem of cheese coming into contact with any kind of phthalate-covered plastic source. And according to many, the cheese tends to have a stronger, better flavor.
You can often find these cheeses at your local farmer’s market, at a local artisanal (i.e. handmade) cheese shop, or through online natural cheese dealers. Just do your homework and contact the shop to find out the route the cheese takes before it’s shipped to your home – ideally avoiding any factory stops.
It’s a good idea to go phthalate-free altogether and give up foods that are packaged in plastics. Opt for fresh foods instead. When using your microwave, use glass instead of plastic, especially if you’re heating up meat or dairy products.
Authorities on toxins also caution against handling cash register and credit card receipts, which are heavy with phthalates like BPA. As I can tell you, it’s almost impossible to avoid them, but at least you can try to keep it to a minimum.