Lovers of boxed mac and cheese, prepare to take a hit. According to a recent test conducted in a lab in Belgium, if you’re eating the powdered cheese that comes in the box, you’re probably also eating a group of chemicals called phthalates that are used to soften plastics.
The Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging bought 30 different cheese products from store shelves in the U.S. — 10 different kinds of mac and cheese with cheese powder, five different types of processed sliced cheeses, and 15 varieties of natural cheese — then shipped the package to the Flemish Institute for Technological Research. The institute did not list the brand names of the products they studied.
Nevertheless, they tested each sample and found significant levels of phthalates in all but one of the products. On average, phthalate levels in the powdered cheeses were found to be twice that found in sliced cheeses and four times found in the natural varieties.
Unlike the European Union and countries like Japan and Argentina, which have banned phthalates entirely, U.S. restrictions on the use of the chemicals are limited. As such, phthalates are in the plastic materials, like tubes and pipes, used to process the cheese, and are found again in the product’s packaging. The phthalates simply leech into the food.
Other countries have good cause for banning the group of chemicals altogether. In a 2016 review article for Environmental Research, for example, authors found links between phthalate exposure and autism.
A study from January of this year, published in Pediatric Research, found an association between phthalate exposure in the womb and a subsequently higher body mass index that could lead to childhood obesity.
And in a review article just published in Environmental Pollution, the authors found links between phthalate exposure and the development of childhood asthma.
It’s not as if the United States government is unaware of the dangers posed by phthalate use. It’s so aware, in fact, that it put together a Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel on Phthalates and Phthalate Alternatives back in 2014.
That panel, whose report was turned over to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, found that phthalates can greatly interfere with the production of testosterone.