A University of Washington study involving cheese products found endocrine-disrupting phthalates present in 29 of 30 samples tested.
A University of Washington study involving cheese products found endocrine-disrupting phthalates present in 29 of 30 samples tested. Boxed mac-and-cheese mixes scored the worst.[i] [ii] Phthalates are added to plastics to increase their flexibility and durability, and sadly they are making their way into our food supply.
Why cheese? Phthalates accumulate in fatty foods such as meat and dairy due to their fat-binding properties.
Phthalates migrate into food from packaging and equipment used in the food manufacturing process. Cheese products become contaminated from contact with plastic tubing, conveyor belts, gaskets, plastic packaging, and even the printing ink and adhesive on labels.[iii]
The results of this study are very troubling because these chemicals have been linked to genital birth defects in infant boys, as well as learning disabilities, aggression, hyperactivity, increased blood pressure, insulin resistance in older males, endometriosisin women, and a variety of other adverse effects. There is strong evidence that phthalates interfere with testosterone production, a hormone vital to normal reproductive development. Deficiency results in several reproductive abnormalities including genital malformation, low sperm count, and even increased risk for testicular cancer later in life.
Phthalates are clearly a health risk even at very low levels of exposure, especially for pregnant women, infants and children.
In the cheese study, researchers tested for 10 different phthalates in a variety of products, including 10 varieties of mac-and-cheese with some labeled as “organic.” High phthalate levels were found in every single mac-and-cheese product, and as many as six different phthalates were found in a single product. DEHP is the most widely restricted phthalate yet it was the most frequently detected.
Not only were these hormone-disrupting chemicals found in ever-popular boxed mac-and-cheese, but they were also detected in the other cheese products ranging from highly processed to more “natural” cheeses such as shredded cheese, string cheese and cottage cheese. Processed cheese slices contained almost triple the phthalates of natural cheese, and boxed mac-and-cheese was four times as high as hard cheese.
In 2008, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) restricted six phthalates from use in children’s toys and childcare products. Children’s toys were previously thought to be the most significant purveyor of phthalates, but recent science has redirected the spotlight toward foods.
Europe has banned many phthalates from use in all plastics involved with food production, but the US FDA continues to permit the use of 28 different phthalates—including DEHP—in food equipment and packaging, based on extremely outdated safety guidelines. Although FDA has fallen short of imposing a ban, they did go as far as issuing a report to the CPSC urging federal agencies to re-evaluate phthalate risks, highlighting the shift in focus from toys to foods:[iv]
“Overall, food, beverages, and drugs via direct ingestion, and not children’s toys and their personal care products, constituted the highest phthalate exposures to all subpopulations, with the highest exposure being dependent upon the phthalate and the products that contain it.”
What to Do
Unless and until regulators actually take action to clean up our food industry, you must take matters into your own hands. Below are 10 tips for reducing your phthalate exposure.
1. Processed food: Eat less processed food as it undergoes many opportunities for phthalate exposure. Fast food is also a significant source of phthalates, especially DEHP and DiNP.[v] Minimize restaurant food unless it specializes in serving fresh, organic whole foods.
2. Fresh whole foods: Eat more whole, fresh organic fruits and vegetables.
3. Cruciferous vegetables: Brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, watercress, kale, Brussels sprouts, and the like) boost your body’s detoxification from plastics.
4. Water: Drink plenty of pure water every day. Consider purchasing a whole-house filtration system designed to remove phthalates and other contaminants.
5. Dairy: If you consume milk, choose milk in glass bottles. Choose cheese that’s as unprocessed as possible and store it wrapped in parchment, inside a glass container.
6. Meat products. If you consume meat, choose meats that are as unprocessed as possible, staying away from “deli meats” and pre-packaged varieties.
7. Plastics: Plastics with codes 3 and 7 may contain phthalates, although there are other chemicals that may leach, therefore avoiding all plastics is optimal. Putting hot food or liquid in a plastic container increases chemical leaching. Replace plastic bags and wrap with glass containers and water bottles, parchment and wax paper bags.
8. Toys and baby products: Throw out old baby toys, baby bottles and sippy cups.
9. Fragrances: Avoid any product listing “fragrance” on the label because many contain phthalates. Choose personal and household products (cosmetics, cleansers, sunscreen, shampoos, nail polish, air fresheners, etc.) that are unscented, with the exception of pure essential oils. Phthalates are on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen List of Endocrine Disruptors. EWG is an excellent resource for identifying clean, phthalate-free products.[vi]
10. Sweating: Sweating helps the body detox from phthalates, so daily exercise and infrared saunas are two ways to help your body purge these plastics.
[i] "Testing Finds Industrial Chemical Phthalates in Cheese," Clean Up Kraft, 2014, Accessed July 18, 2017. http://www.bing.com/cr?IG=69188857444D4FF19BA2963B458EE8BC&CID=..., accessed July 18, 2017.
[ii] SE Serrano et al., "Phthalates and diet: a review of the food monitoring and epidemiology data," Environmental Health 22 March 2014;13(43), 2017, doi:10.1186/1476-069x-13-43, accessed July 18, 2017.
[iii] JS Félix et al., "Analytical tools for identification of non-intentionally added substances (NIAS) coming from polyurethane adhesives in multilayer packaging materials and their migration into food simulants," Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry July 2012; 403(10): 2869-882, doi:10.1007/s00216-012-5965-z, accessed July 18, 2017.
[iv] "Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel on Phthalates and Phthalate Alternatives: Report to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, Directorate for Health Services" Bethesda, MD; July 2014, https://www.cpsc.gov/PageFiles/169876/CHAP-REPORT-FINAL.pdf, accessed July 18, 2017.
[v] AR Zota et al., “Recent Fast Food Consumption and Bisphenol A and Phthalates Exposures among the U.S. Population in NHANES, 2003–2010,” Environmental Health Perspectives 2016;124(10):1521-1528, doi:10.1289/ehp.1510803, accessed July 18, 2017.
[vi] S Pitre, "Phthalates Are Out of Children's Toys, But In Your Food," EWG, July 16, 2014, http://www.ewg.org/enviroblog/2014/07/phthalates-are-out-children-s..., accessed July 18, 2017.