By: Alice Vo Edwards
In June, the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging launched #KleanUpKraft to raise awareness for the problems with phthalates in foods and to ask Kraft to clean up the phthalates in their Macaroni and Cheese products. While Kraft’s response so far has been that the phthalate levels are considerably below the USDA requirements, the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging says this is not good enough. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) that was enacted in 2008 banned toys or childcare articles that has more than .1% of phthalates in them, but at that point in time, no new restrictions were added on food.
Wait – What are Phthalates and why should I care?
Phthalates are chemical plastics that can cause problems like birth defects and are thus dangerous both to children and to pregnant women. In studies reported by the CPSC, the greatest potential health problem for phthalates is on how it hurts male infants when pregnant mothers ingest phthalates. Both in studies in rats and with humans, it has led to reduced fertility for those male children, testis cancer, and other health problems. As a mother, I would hate to have unwittingly eaten processed foods and had this lead to my son being unable to be a father later in life.
Aside from birth defects, eating phthalates are also being demonstrated in some publications as being correlated with poorer test scores for children. While more studies are definitely needed as phthalates are a relatively wide range of substances, the problem is exactly that — in the US, we are exposed to too many phthalates in general, some studies have shown health problems with long term ramifications to brain development and reproductive abilities, and once again, until more studies are published and enough outcry is raised that the government cracks down on phthalates in foods, it is our job to be informed consumers and to reduce our individual exposure and that of our families.
It’s not just Kraft
While any one food might have phthalates in low enough quantities not to be harmful, no one eats just one food and the cumulative effects of phthalates in everyday foods has not been tested enough for to publish advice on safety. After CPSIA, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has set warnings and restrictions on use of phthalates in plastics used for toys and other items children use through what is called the Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP). As part of the effort to investigate how, aside from toys, Phthalates might be making it into human consumption, CHAP conducted a study on Phthalates in food. In 2014, CHAP published a report that definitively showed that people were exposed to far more phthalates in food, than they had been in toys or personal care products, so the direction and laws that had been established to date were focused on the wrong things. In addition, the report shows that, when they looked at the cumulative effect of phthalates that pregnant women and infants were exposed to through food, drinks, and drugs, between 5-10% of those included in the study exceeded the acceptable exposure level.
Their report showed that children and pregnant women consumed a significant amount of phthalates combined when measured in summary across multiple food groups consumed. While Phthalates were found in many food groups, they were especially high and were a greater contribution to exposure in dairy products. This is why the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging is specifically asking Kraft to stand up and be a part of the positive change effort to clean up hidden Phthalates in packaged foods.
While the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging is specifically calling on Kraft as a producer of a large number of processed cheese products, they are by far not the only source of Phthalates in foods. Dairy is simply the most important food group that needs to be dealt with.
Why is Dairy such a big deal?
Amongst dairy products alone, the CHAP report stated that the greatest contributors to infant Phthalates was in infant formulas; for toddlers, milk or other foods, and in young children, milk or other foods. Aside from dairy, Phthalates were found in meats, cereals, vegetables, fats and oils. The amount in dairy compared to other food groups, in the effect on infants and toddlers, is 10 times more exposure from diary than from the next largest categories for toddlers, fats, grains, or meats. This means that, if, by removing or mitigating just dairy phthalates, the majority of the risk and exposure for young children would be removed. Pregnant woman are also often advised to eat more dairy for the calcium, which can also lead to increased Phthalate exposure.
So What Should You Do?
First, if you’re into advocacy, take a look at kleanupkraft.org, or any other advocacy groups that are working to shut down the use of phthalates in foods.
Second, if you have young children or are pregnant or nursing, cut down on your consumption of packaged and processed cheese products as much as possible. For example, a larger block of cheese that you can cut yourself, or that you purchase direct from the farm in a wooden box or other non-plastic container would be better than one in a plastic container. Same for milk products delivered in glass compared to those delivered in containers lined with plastics to prevent spoilage and shelf-life. The more processed dairy is and the longer it’s shelf-life, the more wary you should be about potential phthalates.
Third, don’t think that because you are not pregnant, nursing, or older, that this isn’t something you need to worry about. Just because they haven’t started researching it or publishing studies that show there is a problem, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have potential health risks. If it can cause infertility and testate cancer, what other types of health risks can it cause? While currently an unknown, it is better to be safe rather than sorry, so stick to fresher, less processed foods as much as possible.