Parents, I hope you’re sitting down right now, because I have some pretty upsetting news to share: Turns out, that mac and cheese you’ve been feeding your kids — you know, one of the three foods they actually eat without waging an epic battle at the dinner table — might be hazardous to their health.
I know, I know — if you’re anything like me and have a picky eater at home (I’ve got two), you are this close to socking me in the head right now. I mean, mac and cheese is a freaking parenting staple. Not only do most kids love it, but it’s cheap, easy to whip up quickly, and the cheese gives the meal at least a little bit of protein (unlike bread, which is our other go-to when kids get fussy).
I know I’m preaching to the choir here — we’ve all been there, when a good old box of mac and cheese has literally saved dinnertime. Which is why this latest news is causing most of us to lose our damn minds.
OK, so let me get right down to it: Yesterday, The New York Times published an article under the headline, “The Chemicals in Your Mac and Cheese,” citing a new report issued by four different health and safety organizations. In a nutshell, it basically states that high concentrations of the chemical phthalates was found in various cheese products, including mac and cheese.
In fact, the researchers tested 30 different cheese products, and found the highest concentrations of phthalates in powdered mac and cheese itself.
“The phthalate concentrations in powder from mac and cheese mixes were more than four times higher than in block cheese and other natural cheeses like shredded cheese, string cheese and cottage cheese,” Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, told NYT.
Belliveau also shared that he believes high levels of phthalates can be found in pretty much all pre-packaged mac and cheese —and yes, even the organic kind was tested.
The news is, of course, now starting to go viral (because, hello, mac and cheese is the holy grail of parenting and we are all about to lose our freaking minds here!).
But what do we parents have to fear exactly? And what the heck are “phthalates,” and how the are they getting into our kids’ mac and cheese?
For starters, Phthalates aren’t actually present in the foods themselves, but are found in the packaging of certain foods, and on the equipment used to manufacture the foods.
As NYT reports:
“The chemicals migrate into food from food processing equipment like plastic tubing, conveyor belts and gaskets and other plastic materials used in the manufacturing process, and can also seep in from printed labels or plastic materials in the packaging.”
These chemicals like to bind with fats, so they tend to be found in high fat foods like cheese and other full-fat dairy products. They can also be found in infant formulas, oils, meats, and fast foods.
But here’s what’s most important: According to health officials, phthalates can be pretty dangerous, especially for developing babies and young children. The Times explains that phthalates “[c]an disrupt male hormones like testosterone and have been linked to genital birth defects in infant boys and learning and behavior problems in older children.”
Damn, that does not sound good at all.
Additionally, Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle, tells The Times that research has linked phthalates with neurodevelopmental and behavior issues in young kids like hyperactivity and cognitive delays.
The good news here (and I promise, there is at least some) is that although packaged mac and cheese is definitely something you might want to consider at least cutting back on, researchers only tested powdered mac and cheese — not the boxed kind you can buy with the cheese sauce already made. (Though the report did emphasize that packaged dairy products overall are a concern.) And you can still make homemade mac and cheese for your kids from scratch, of course — it’s actually not that difficult at all. Your kids might need to adjust a bit to the new recipe, but we’re talking about pasta and cheese here, so I don’t think you can go very wrong.
And here’s the other potentially good news here: An exposé of this magnitude can’t help but draw attention to a problem that needs to be fixed, and will likely cause mac and cheese companies (as well as other manufacturers whose products contain high levels of phthalates) to figure out other ways to package and sell their delicious foods — sans potentially dangerous chemicals.
Although the FDA allows phthalates in many of the materials that come into contact with our foods (as The Times reports, the FDA classifies phthalates as “indirect food additives”), Europe has already banned most phthalates from use.
A spokeswoman for the FDA also told The Times that, “the F.D.A. continues to monitor literature and research on these compounds as it becomes available” — which is at least somewhat reassuring.
But I have a feeling that if a public outcry becomes strong enough, the FDA might follow suit with Europe and ban many of the phthalates that are seeping into our foods altogether.
And if so, let’s hope that happens sooner than later, right? Because my mac-and-cheese-loving kids might not be able to survive on white bread alone until then.