Fast Take: Debunking Another Cheesy Report

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Mac and cheese: a childhood favorite for many and a go-to comfort food. Unfortunately, this classic dish is under attack because of a common packaging compound. A new report found the presence of phthalates, commonly used in food packaging, in macaroni and cheese. Cue for fear-mongering media headlines.

Michael Holsapple, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition and the director of the Center for Research on Ingredient Safety (CRIS) at Michigan State University, reviewed this recent report, “Testing Finds Industrial Chemical Phthalates in Cheese.” His initial reactions to this report: “There’s really nothing new here – except for the possible focus on ‘mac and cheese’, and there are some concerns about the quality of the study reported.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves all food packaging materials and confirms there is “sufficient scientific information to demonstrate that the use of these materials is safe.” However, every so often, there is a new study or report fanning the fires of fear around these compounds. So let’s put out these flames and talk about uses, safety, and other important information related to packaging.

Why are phthalates used?

Phthalates are a family of compounds used as plasticizers that change the flexibility and hardness of plastics to help with the performance, cost, and durability of a product. This group of compounds is used in hundreds of products that we encounter in our day-to-day lives. Moreover, phthalates have been used for more than 50 years in various food packaging products. In short, they are a key component to sustainable food packaging.  

Are phthalates safe?

We asked Dr. Holsapple to weigh in with his thoughts about the safety of this group of compounds. He emphasized that “Phthalates have been studied as possible endocrine-disrupters for many years, and there is no question that these types of chemicals can be associated with adverse health consequences.” However, as a toxicologist with more than 30 years of experience, he underscored the importance of the fact that regulatory agencies like the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have weighed in on the safety concerns of phthalates: “There is also no question that conditions of exposure to phthalates that are considered to be safe have been calculated – e.g., terms like ‘tolerable daily intake (TDI)’ and ‘allowable daily intake (ADI)’ – and are enforced.”

Are trace amounts of phthalates found in our food?

Yes, while these compounds do appear in food at low levels (set at specific levels for safety) they are closely monitored and regulated. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and others have shown phthalates are quickly processed and removed by the body. According to the CDC, it’s also important to note that just because detectable levels of phthalates are found in the body, this does not imply that there will be negative health effects.

What’s the bottom line?

Phthalates have been used in food packaging for decades with hefty scientific and regulatory oversight. It’s important to remember these compounds are found in trace levels in food, but the human body quickly processes and eliminates them. For overall health, it’s key to focus on establishing a healthy eating pattern consisting of lots of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, healthy unsaturated fats, and whole grains.

Laura Kubitz contributed to this post.