Food corporation Kraft-Heinz just sent a clear message to parents: Your worries about phthalate contamination in our food chain aren't our problem.
Phthalates are “plasticizers” that increase the flexibility of materials. They are used in a range of consumer and industrial products, including food packaging, personal care products, medical devices and toys. The National Institutes of Health classifies phthalates as known endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with the normal functioning of the body’s hormone system. Research has connected phthalates to hormonal changes, lower sperm count, decreased mobile sperm, birth defects in the male reproductive system, obesity, diabetes and thyroid irregularities.
A study conducted by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging found that 29 of 30 cheese samples tested contained phthalates. Powdered macaroni and cheese mixes contained phthalate levels four times higher than natural, unprocessed cheese. Since phthalates are not strongly bound, they can gradually leach from food packaging or processing materials to foods. They can migrate from processing equipment, such as plastic tubing or gloves, or from the materials they are packaged in.
A recent study showed that one in five American adults eats 81 percent of their calories from ultra-processed foods such as powdered macaroni and cheese mixes. In addition to the health concerns associated with ultra-processed foods, a high consumption of processed and ultra-processed foods can increase the potential for exposure to phthalates.
Kraft Macaroni & Cheese uses powdered macaroni and cheese mixes similar to the ones assessed in the Coalition for Safer Food Processing study. The presence of phthalates in products like these are particularly concerning because children are especially vulnerable to hormone-disrupting chemicals, because of their small, developing bodies. Yet Kraft has shown no interest in changing the way it manufactures this food.
Safer food processing and packaging methods are necessary to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals such as phthalates. The Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging launched the #KleanUpKraft campaign to encourage major food producers such as Kraft to remove phthalate sources from their facilities. But Kraft-Heinz rejected the petition sent to them last month asking the company to remove the chemical from their products.
“The continued use of phthalates in food processing, and the refusal of food companies like Kraft-Heinz to listen to either scientists or consumer concerns, further highlights the need for consumers to avoid ultra-processed food products,” said Dawn Undurraga, EWG’s nutritionist.
EWG recommends that people limit their consumption of processed foods. Consumers can use EWG’s Dietary Guidelines and Food Scores for guidance about what to eat and how to to find less-processed foods.
Companies are facing increasing pressure from advocacy groups to remove toxic chemicals from food. EWG has called on Bayer-Monsanto to eliminate the pesticide glyphosate from its oat-based products, such as Cheerios, and joined with a group of companies to petition the Environmental Protection Agency to limit glyphosate residue allowed on food.