Macaroni and Cheese

Serving Mac and Cheese and Phthalates

Mac and cheese sits near the top of the chart for America’s favorite comfort foods. But here’s a clearly discomforting thought. Yesterday, on National Mac and Cheese Day, we learned that those convenient dinners in a box have alarming levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals in them.

Specifically, the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO) reports that these powdered cheese dinners may have two to four times more phthalates in them than natural cheese.

A Particular Concern for Children and Pregnant Women

Phthalates are a class of endocrine disruptors – industrial chemicals – banned from teething rings and rubber duckies a decade ago for safety reasons. In plastics, phthalates serve to make them softer and longer lasting. But in animals and humans, they seem to disrupt hormones. Because they can interfere with testosterone, exposing infant boys is a concern. This and other issues make phthalate exposure a concern for pregnant women.

In particular, phthalates have been implicated as a risk factor for developing diabetes and obesity. According to a recent scientific review, the role of some phthalates in developing obesity and type 2 diabetes is “indisputable.” Even so, controversies remain. Sorting out the long-term effects of these subtle environmental toxins is quite tricky.

Unresolved Questions

Writing in Slate, Susan Matthews points out two important caveats about this mac and cheese issue. First and foremost, she says, dose makes the poison. And the current discussion has precious little information about how much exposure to phthalates is too much.

Second, she points out that all we have on the testing is a brief summary of testing done by a lab at the behest of consumer advocates who want to see phthalates banned. Peer review is lacking. Also lacking is a full disclosure of methods, results, and limitations of the research.

Nonetheless, this news points to the need for informed decisions. Legislation and regulation has already taken some phthalates out of many consumer products. But years later, research shows that we’re still getting exposed to phthalates.

The Endocrine Society says we need further action to reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors. Maybe mac and cheese in boxes would be a good place to start.

Click here to read more from the New York Times and here to read more from Slate.

Macaroni and Cheese, photograph © Karl Baron / flickr

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July 15, 2017