By: Alice Vo Edwards
I love cheese. From Kraft Mac and Cheese, to string cheese, to quesadillas, or brie on a cracker, I am a huge cheese fanatic. New research has been published however, that points to too much dairy as a potential contributor to infertility and cancer in men, due to too much dairy on the part of their pregnant mothers and motherly feeding habits. This makes me grateful that I had two girls, but it’s still news that is important to know and share for those you know who are thinking about getting pregnant, are pregnant, or have young kids, especially.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission convened a Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP) to study Phthalates and Phthalate Alternatives, after the 2008 order to reduce Phthalates in children’s toys. The embarrassing findings from this study was that there are far more Phthalates being consumed by children through foods and beverages than there were from toys. Yet, while this finding was published July 2014, there is as yet no new laws to cut back on Phthalates in foods. The study also discussed that Phthalates contribute in both rats and humans to testicular cancer and fertility problems in men, as well as some research that suggests that higher levels of phthalate consumption in children may be correlated with lower test scores in school. For anyone who has read Freakonomics, you know that correlation is not causation, however. We cannot, based on the research thus far performed, state that eating phthalates causes lower test scores. Since phthalates are in highly processed foods, this could be related to completely separate causal factor. With what parents these days spend on expensive fertility procedures however, any parent or parent-to-be should most definitely be reading this news with some dismay and start thinking seriously about what they can do to reduce Phthalate consumption in themselves and their children, especially male children.
In June of this year, the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging launched #KleanUpKraft to raise awareness for the problems with phthalates in foods and to ask Kraft to clean up the phthalates in their Macaroni and Cheese products. I love my Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. I’ve been eating it for 30 years and while I have come to love Annie’s Organic Mac and Cheese varieties, especially now that we can get them bulk at Costco, there are times when a box of Kraft’s Mac, made with some nice, unhealthy margarine, just hits the spot in a soul-satisfying way. While I knew eating that cheesy, calorie laden treat what bad on so many levels, researching and personally reading the studies on why the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging has gone after Kraft Mac and Cheese in particular, made a cold shiver run down my spine and has made one of my favorite homestyle comfort foods seem even less wholesome they I already know it to be.
The reason for this, is phthalates. What, you may be asking, are Phthalates other than something that sounds incredibly difficult to spell or pronounce? Plastics. Chemical plastics that are used in things like those silver containers that Kraft’s cheese powder comes in. Come on, you always knew that cheese wasn’t meant to be stored for a year, on a shelf, right? It couldn’t be healthy and natural for a product that goes bad in two weeks in the fridge to hang out in the pantry for a year with no harmful side effects. Deep down, we’ve always known it, but we keep telling ourselves that it can’t be that bad, or the government wouldn’t let them sell it. Convenience is king until the scientific evidence for how it can cause harm begins to mount.
Before I turn you away from Kraft altogether, let me point out that Kraft is by far not the only culprit. Phthalates are found in many foods that are stored in containers where chemical plastics are used as part of the storage mechanism. Though dairy, by far, is the greatest culprit in terms of volume and how much of a pregnant woman or child consumes in a daily basis, other foods do contain phthalates including meats, cereals, and oils. Going organic will not save you (sorry Annie). While the study published by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging hides all the names, they did test and find Phthalates in organic processed cheese products.
The Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging started a petition to get Kraft, as one of the largest, if not the largest, producer of highly processed cheese product (and therefore, a large contributor to Phthalates in pregnant women and children) to cut down on Phthalates in their packaging. Kraft responded that they are far below the standard for minimum levels of Phthalates allowed. Sorry my friends, there is no hope that my favorite Mac will be safe to eat, any time soon.
This doesn’t mean you can’t eat a box of Macaroni and cheese now and then, the problem is volume. Like most dietitians are fond of saying regarding most foods, all things in moderation. The problem is that most processed foods and dairy aside, possibly, from canned goods (no data to contribute in the canned goods arena here), phthalates are likely in most of them. Nutritionists who have recommended eating more fresh fruits and veggies are likely jumping up with the good news that with this research on yet another reason why processed foods are unhealthy (yes, delicious boxed cereals in cardboard boxes with plastic liners, I’m including you).
Thinking through a trip to the grocery store however, you may be wondering if it is even worth trying to avoid phthalates, since just about everything in the store is sold in some type of plastic packaging. Here’s the good news: the research showed that the highest contributor by more than 10x that of other food groups, was in dairy products.
So, you can keep the cereals, grains, meats, etc., and just cut back on highly processed dairy, and significantly reduce your exposure. Also, at least for now, the studies have shown the most problems for pregnant woman and male infants. This doesn’t mean that they won’t realize that other areas of the population can be harmed, but if you’re more of a glass half-full type person, you could simply switch to dairy products packaged in glass vs plasticized bottles and plasticized paper products while pregnant, nursing, or for feeding your young male children, and mitigate most of the known risk factors.
Kraft, I’d sure love to hear that you are researching Phthalate alternatives. Until then, I’m still planning to enjoy you every once in awhile. My grocery store just started carrying a new french yogurt that comes in a glass package rather than a plastic one, however. Before, that just seemed pretty. Now, I have a whole new reason aside from sustainability and recycling, to appreciate non-plastic packaging.