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How harmful are the chemicals in your boxes of mac and cheese?

TODAY logo TODAY 2 days ago Linda Carroll
Macaroni and Cheese © Shutterstock Macaroni and Cheese

Moms were in an uproar recently after a report found that some packaged brands of macaroni and cheese might contain harmful chemicals.

After testing 30 different cheese products, researchers from an independent lab found that all but one contained chemicals called phthalates, man-made substances that have been shown to interfere with human hormones. The highest levels were found in the cheesy powder used to make the sauce for boxed macaroni and cheese.

The testing was paid for by an advocacy organization, The Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging. Two caveats: the report wasn't published in a peer-reviewed journal and it doesn't specify how the levels found in mac and cheese compare with what has been reported to be a problem in scientific articles. Experts didn't think the report's results should be sensationalized, but suggested that the new data adds to our understanding of how hormone-disrupting chemicals are linked to human health.

Phthalates are used in hundreds of products, such as food packaging, personal care products, toys, vinyl flooring and wall covering, and detergents, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

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Video: Powdered mac and cheese, like Kraft, may contain toxic chemicals (Courtesy: New York Daily News)

The FDA says it's unclear what effect, if any, phthalates have on people. There have been numerous human studies linking fetal and childhood exposure to these chemicals with a plethora of behavioral and brain development issues, including lower IQ,attention problems, hyperactivity, and poorer social communication skills. In these sorts of studies, scientists measured markers for phthalates in pregnant women's urine and later tested their children for developmental problems. Most recently, they've been linked to decreased thyroid function in girls in a study published in Environment International.

Why are phthalates in mac and cheese?

The chemicals aren't added to the products on purpose, but are infused into the packaging material to keep moisture out and extend shelf life. Over time, they leach into the cheese powder.

"Phthalates go into fat," explained Pam Factor-Litvak, a professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. And while other food products with fat come in packages containing phthalates, many — like milk and cheese, for example — have a relatively short shelf life, so there isn't as much time for the phthalates to seep into the food, Factor-Litvak said. But boxed mac and cheese has a long shelf life.

Currently, the chemicals going into food packaging materials are unregulated.

The Kraft Heinz Company, which makes Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, said phthalates are not added to their products.

"The trace amounts that were reported in this limited study are more than 1,000 times lower than levels that scientific authorities have identified as acceptable," said Lynne Galia, a company spokesperson. "Our products are safe for consumers to enjoy."

Until manufacturers figure out a way to make packaging without phthalates, parents should try making mac and cheese from scratch, Factor-Litvak said. Unprocessed cheeses tested at the same time as the packaged products came in with much lower levels of phthalates.

In any case, parents don't have to go completely cold turkey on packaged mac and cheese, but should "limit the use of the boxed products to those nights when it's 8:30 PM and your kids haven't eaten yet," Factor-Litvak said.

Ultimately, because phthalates are in so many products, they aren't easy to avoid, said Ami R. Zota, an assistant professor in the department of environmental and occupational health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

"This report helps bring new information to the table," Zota said. "The intention is not to create a sensational message. But I think it can help raise awareness about these issues."

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