A new study has found that phthalates, a group of chemicals already banned from use in children's toys because they are known to alter male hormones like testosterone, have been found prevalent in popular box mac and cheese products.
Since about two million boxes of mac and cheese are sold in the United States everyday, Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, one of four advocacy groups that funded the study, told The New York Times that it is hard for American households to avoid phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates).
The study, released by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and also funded by the Ecology Center, Healthy Babies Bright Futures and Safer States, found that "phthalates were detected in nearly every cheese product tested (29 of 30 varieties)."
The study concluded that action should be taken to eliminate phthalates from food products and further research needs to be done.
Phthalates, according to the study, are widely used in plastics, rubber, coatings, adhesives, sealants, printing inks, and fragrance. They are described as a serious concern globally. About 12 billion pounds of the chemicals were produced around the world in 2014.
While phthalates aren't added directly into foods, they usually become "indirect" food additives during processing, packaging, and preparation and tend to be found at higher levels in highly processed or fatty foods.
"Phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals that pose a serious threat to the health of pregnant women and children. Many studies have linked prenatal exposure to phthalates to abnormal development and function of the brain and reproductive system. According to federal scientists, up to 725,000 American women of childbearing age may be exposed daily to phthalates at levels that threaten the healthy development of their babies, should they be pregnant," said the study.
For the study, samples of mac and cheese used in the study were purchased in the U.S. and shipped in original packaging to VITO, the Flemish Institute for Technological Research in Belgium. Fat was extracted from each product sample and analyzed for 13 phthalates using validated test methods, Belliveau said.
Some 10 different phthalates were identified and in one product alone up to six of them were found. Average phthalate levels were also found to be more than four times higher in mac and cheese powder samples than in hard blocks and other natural cheese. DEHP, the most widely restricted phthalate, was also found more often and at a much higher average concentration than any other phthalate among the tested products.
"Our belief is that it's in every mac 'n' cheese product — you can't shop your way out of the problem," Belliveau told the Times.
The Times further reported that nine of the products tested were made by Kraft. Consumers are being urged to contact mac and cheese manufacturers and pressure them to investigate and eliminate phthalates from their products.
Heather B. Patisaul, a professor of biological sciences at the Center for Human Health and the Environment at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, told the Times that while the concentration of phthalates in food may be quite low, they are still present at higher levels than the natural hormones in the body. There is strong evidence, she said, on the effect of phthalates on testosterone.
"That means there is less testosterone available to the developing male fetus, and since testosterone is absolutely vital to build his reproductive organs, the worry is that you will get malformations and other kinds of problems that translate to health effects later," Patisaul said.
Problems, she explained, could include: "Infertility, low sperm counts, altered male reproductive behavior and changes in the area of the brain that are important for sex differences between men and women."
"If you asked most scientists about the top 10 or 20 endocrine-disrupting chemicals they worry about, phthalates would be on that list," she added. "We have an enormous amount of data."
While the Food and Drug Administration is yet to ban the chemicals in foods, according to The New York Times, the regulating body urged federal agencies to assess risks "with a view to supporting risk management steps" in 2014. It was also noted that toys, not food, drugs and beverages, were the main source of exposure to phthalates.
To avoid exposure to phthalates, families, particularly those with pregnant women and young children were urged to minimize their intake of processed food, eat more whole, fresh or frozen fruit, choose low-fat dairy products and limit the use of plastic utensils.
Other precautions to take include washing hands frequently, choosing unscented personal care products and using glass, stainless steel, ceramic or wood to hold and store food instead of plastics.