Minimizing Your Exposure to Phthalates

Yet another revelation to underscore the health advice, “shop the perimeter of the supermarket.” This most recent disclosure, stemming from a study conducted by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, is that most boxed macaroni and cheese products contain high levels of the industrial chemical phthalate – including products labeled as organic.

Phthalates are plasticizers that make plastics more pliable; they’re also used in packaging inks and as solvents and adhesives. Although they’re not added as a listed ingredient in packaged food products, phthalates leach into foods from packaging or during the manufacturing process. Six types of phthalates have been banned from certain children’s toys and child care items, but not from all child-related products – the chemical was only banned from items that researchers believed children might put into their mouths. However, alternative plasticizers and other types of phthalates that were not banned can still be used.

This ban did not address the presence of phthalates in foods or other personal care products. According to The New York Times, “food, drugs and beverages, and not toys, were the primary source of exposure to phthalates.” These chemicals build up in fatty foods because they bind with fats – this is especially dangerous with packaging on infant foods and formulas, fast foods, baked products, and more.

The study tested thirty cheese products for the presence of phthalates, and of those thirty, twenty-nine showed phthalate contaminations. The highest concentrations were found in boxed mac and cheese products, which contain highly processed cheese powder. These concentrations were four times higher than in other cheese products such as string cheese, block cheese, and cottage cheese. But boxed mac and cheese isn’t the only everyday product containing phthalates – they’re also found in cosmetics, vinyl, hair products and just about everything packaged in or processed with plastics.

Some of the known health issues associated with phthalates are:

  • endocrine disruption, particularly regarding male hormones
  • learning and behavior disabilities in children
  • genital birth defects in boys
  • infertility
  • risks to young children and pregnant women

Besides these health problems that can be caused by phthalates, the National Toxicology Program’s “Report on Carcinogens”, Fourteenth Edition regarding dioctyl phthalates, is introduced with this sentence: “Reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Studies have also linked phthalates to myriad other conditions, from asthma, ADD, and breast cancer to type 2 diabetes, low IQ and autism.

The perimeter of the supermarket is generally considered to have the healthiest foods – that’s where you find fresh produce, meats, dairy and fish. On the other hand, the central supermarket aisles contain a wide assortment of processed foods that are loaded with chemicals, refined sugars, high sodium content, bad fats and other unhealthy ingredients. Local organic farm markets are even better choices for produce, both environmentally to lower your carbon footprint and health-wise, since you’ll be avoiding pesticides and herbicides as well as getting the maximum number of vitamins and minerals from freshly picked produce. Try to avoid storing or microwaving foods in plastic bags or containers; instead, use stainless steel, ceramic or glass, and never put hot liquids into plastic cups. Minimizing your family’s exposure to phthalates in whatever ways possible is the best course of action.

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