How Bad are those Phthalates in your Kid’s Mac and Cheese, and How do you Avoid Them?

mac and cheese
A recent study found “high concentrations” of the potentially harmful phthalates in boxed mac and cheese.


Is mac and cheese really loaded with dangerous chemicals?  Recently,  a New York Times article raised concerns about the safety of one of America’s most cherished cheap comfort foods.  Those boxes of mac and cheese that so many parents feed to their kids (and themselves), wrote the Times, may contain potentially harmful chemicals known as phthalates in “high concentrations.”   According to the article, phthalates, which have been banned in several children’s products, may affect male hormones, and are linked to birth defects in boys and learning and behavioral issues in children.  Lest you think, “Not me, I give my little prince(ss) that super-clean, certified-organic brand with the lovely lady’s name on the box,” the Times article points out that phthalates were found in the organic brands, too.

Why are there Chemicals in Organic Food?

Phthalates aren’t usually added directly to foods and beverages but leach in from processing and packaging.


Finding phthalates in products labeled “organic” is disconcerting for parents relying on that moniker to protect their kids from exposure to harmful chemicals, but it also hints at the phthalates’ source.  Most aren’t added directly to the food itself but leach in from plastics used in packaging and processing.  As the Washington Post’s Roberto A. Ferdman has written, “The more machinery, plastic, conveyor belts, and various forms of processing equipment that food touches, the more likely the food is to contain higher levels of phthalates. And fast food tends to touch a good deal more of these things than, say, the food one purchases at a local farmers market.”  The byproduct of all of our over-prepared and over-processed foods is more hormone-disrupting chemicals in our diets than we would like.

Infants and Young Children Are Especially Vulnerable

Infants and young children may be especially vulnerable to phthalate exposure.


Infants and young children seem not only to be particularly at risk from the effects of phthalates, but are also more likely to have higher levels of exposure.  According to one study, phthalates cross the placenta and pass into breast milk, at least in animal studies, and “[i]nfants and young children consume more calories per kilogram of body weight, consume relatively more dairy and other fatty foods,” further increasing their exposure to foods liable to be high in the chemicals. This all seems like really scary stuff for people who, like my wife and I, have perhaps too often turned to the quick powdery goodness of boxed mac and cheese to feed ourselves and our kids.

So How Much Really is Too Much?

Some have estimated an adult male would need to eat 42 boxes of mac and cheese a day to exceed a European safety standard based on third-generation rat studies. They estimated a four-month-old who ate a whole box would exceed the EPA’s limit for infants, and a two-year-old would need to eat five boxes to exceed the same EPA limit.


The folks over at Popular Science took their best shot at trying to figure out how much mac and cheese would be too much in their article, Mac-n-cheese Probably isn’t More Toxic than other Foods.  They relied on a third-generation rat study from a European safety organization to set a .05 milligrams per kilogram threshold. Using the data from the study that the Times article relied upon, they reasoned the average adult male would need to eat 42 boxes a day.  The younger you get, however, the closer to hazardous the numbers start to seem. Using the EPA’s .02 milligrams per kilogram threshold for infants, the folks at Popular Science determined that a single box of mac and cheese would exceed the dose for a four-month-old (not that there are many four-month-olds eating whole boxes of mac and cheese), but that a typical two-year-old would have to eat five boxes.  Those numbers may seem somewhat reassuring, but the problem isn’t just mac and cheese.

Phthalates are Everywhere in our Foods

The trade off for ready-made processed food has been increased ingestion of potentially harmful phthalates.


Phthalates are ubiquitous in the processing and packaging of our foods and, as a consequence, are present in a host of food products. A 2014 study found that infants on a typical diet and adolescents on a diet high in meat and dairy both exceeded the EPA’s threshold for DEHP, a phthalate the study recognized as a potent hormone disrupter.  The study also found that a diet high in meat and dairy was associated with a two-fold increase in DEHP. As the Guardian reported in 2015, according to Robin Whyatt, professor of environmental health sciences at the Columbia University Medical Center, “Milking machines use a lot of plastic and DEHP is free and very lipophilic (fat soluble), and milk is full of lipids, so it just pulls the DEHP out of the plastic tubing and into the milk . . . my guess would be that milk is a pretty important source of dietary exposure to DEHP.”

High Phthalate Levels Linked with Fast Food

fast food
Fast food consumption has also been linked to increased phthalate levels.


A 2016 study linked higher consumption of fast foods to increased phthalate levels, and was reported on by articles such as Time Magazine’s How Fast Food Messes With Your Hormones and the Washington Post’s Researchers have Found a ‘Striking’ New Side Effect from Eating Fast Food, which pointed to studies linking phthalates to infertility, diabetes, high blood pressure, as well as allergic diseases and negative behavior in children and referenced a statement in which the “U.S. Department of Health and Human Services warned that DEHP [a common phthalate] is ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.'”  So, with or without mac and cheese, your child quite easily could be getting more phthalates than they should, and if your child’s diet is high in meat and cheese they very likely are getting too much of the problematic plasticizers.

Phthalates Not Limited to Foods

Phthalates have been found in vinyl flooring purchased from major retailers. Some have vowed to phase them out.


Our exposure to phthalates isn’t limited to food either.  They are in many household, industrial, cosmetic, medical, and building materials, and we are inhaling them in addition to ingesting them.  They were found in 58% of vinyl flooring purchased from major retailers according to one study.  A Consumer Reports study of phthalates in 17 vinyl flooring samples, indicated varying levels in the products, but found the levels low in a “wipe test” on flooring that was both “new and artificially aged.”  Even with these low levels, Consumer Reports still recommended caution, indicating that “[p]arents of toddlers should wet-mop the floor often and wash children’s hands after the little ones have been crawling on a vinyl floor.”  There appears to be some movement amongst the larger box retailers to phase out the chemicals, with Home Depot announcing they were going to do just that.

What’s the Takeaway?

So what should you make of all this?  Evidence indicates phthalates disrupt the endocrine system in large enough doses and numerous studies link them to poor health outcomes, especially in infants and young children.  There is no reason to think, however, that mac and cheese is a particularly dangerous product harboring phthalates in inordinately high amounts. Rather, our concern should be that, although most of the products we consume do not contain particularly high levels of the phthalates in any one of them, many of the products we consume or otherwise breath or ingest do contain phthalates, and their cumulative effect, especially on infants and young children, could have significant health consequences.

How Can You Avoid Phthalates?

Keeping your floors clean and home free of dust can reduce non-food based phthalate consumption.


Short of moving to an earthbound commune free of any plastics and only eating foods you grow yourself, what can you do to avoid giving your kids and yourself a toxic dose?  Parents, especially those with infants and small children, could take reasonable precautions by:

  • Keeping dust low in your home.
  • If remodeling, not choosing carpet or plastic surfaces or choosing surfaces known to be free of phthalates.
  • Wet mopping any plastic/vinyl flooring often.
  • Keeping your kids hands clean, especially after contact with surfaces you believe may leach phthalates.
  • Wiping any plastic floors routinely.


A diet low in meat and dairy prepared from scratch in large batches and stored in glass containers may help to prevent ingesting phthalates.


In terms of food, to lower your family’s intake of phthalates, you could consider:

  • Lowering consumption of meat and dairy products, especially highly processed versions.
  • Avoiding fast or prepared foods when possible.
  • Making food in large batches from scratch.
  • Storing and serving foods and liquids in glass containers or containers known not to contain phthalates.


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