When I read the NYT article about phthalates in Mac n Cheese, I went to the cupboard and threw out all my boxes! But then I thought… wait aren’t you a scientist? so I looked into it more … and keep reading if you want a summary of what I think about this issue…
I re-read the NYT article and the study report, and I read many research articles about phthalates in food. Actually I will be teaching a class Toxins in the Environment in the fall, at CU Boulder, so this was good for me to dig into. In any case, I think that the NYT article is fine and the report is accurate. Just because it is not a peer reviewed paper, doesn’t mean it is junk science. The lab they used was credible.
But looking at it in the bigger picture is important. One recent review of studies summarized that high levels of the phthalate DEHP are > 300 ug/kg and low levels are < 50 ug/kg (Serrano et al. 2014). This paper found that poultry, cooking oils and cream-based dairy products are major sources of DEHP exposure. The NYT report does show that DEHP was high in all of the 30 different kinds of cheese products tests (average 295 ug/kg). But this is not new, and is well established in the phthalate exposure literature. I think what is “new” is identifying that the mac and cheese power tested on average was 106 compared to regular cheese at 56 ug/kg and it made the NYT. But if you drink whole milk and eat chicken and cook with oils and eat cheese…you are getting DEHP exposure every day. and you already have a lot of phthalates in your body from our western lifestyle…
I also read a paper that showed that a vegetarian diet offered a modest protection from exposure to DEHP – about 26% reduction, and that vegan diets offered a little bit more (36%) (Tordjman et al. 2016(.
The NYT article did point out that Europe has banned phthalate containing equipment from processing high-fat content foods, but that the FDA in the US has not done that yet – it probably should since we get our highest exposures to DEHP and other high molecular weight phthalates from food products and it likes to preferentially sorb into fats. So in general fat in your diet is good for you (we have recently learned, and sugar is the real evil), but I guess not in the US since we have lots of environmental toxins in our environment and food – ha. What a predicament.
So…I’ll replace all the mac and cheese boxes we had in our kitchen that I threw out in a panic! But I will also see if I can petition the FDA to update their regulations on types of materials used in food processing.
Serrano et al. Environmental Health 2014, 13:43
Tordjman et al. Environment International 2016, 97:68