The New York Times made waves this week when it highlighted the potentially dangerous effects of a household staple: boxed macaroni and cheese. A recent study found phthalates in nearly every cheese product tested (29 out of 30) and found levels four times higher in powdered cheese products (such as those used in boxed macaroni and cheese) than fresh cheese products (although fresh cheese products, particularly those wrapped in plastics, still contained higher than recommended amounts). Organic or "healthier" types were not exempt, showing equal levels of the toxic compound.
A number of studies have shown that phthalates are damaging to thyroid health, can cause metabolic syndrome, and, perhaps most importantly and damningly, can act as a hormone disrupter. Phthalates essentially mimic human hormones in the body, disrupting your own hormonal system and leading to the thyroid, metabolic, and endocrine system effects noted above.
Phthalates aren't present naturally in foods and aren't being explicitly added for consumption purposes. "There are different types of phthalates, but the ones most discussed are an alphabet soup of DBP, DEP, DEHP, and DMP," explains Dr. Joel Kahn, a cardiologist and functional medicine practitioner. "They are typically used in plastic food and beverage containers, as well as in food production, perfumes, insect repellents, hair sprays, nail polish, deodorants, fragrances, air fresheners and laundry detergents, carpet, vinyl floors, shower curtains, raincoats, plastic toys, plastic car parts, and hospital IV tubing and bags."
In the case of cheese, the exposure happens during production and during storage in the often plastic-lined boxes. Like many toxins, they tend to bind to fats, making cheese a perfect target. While the study only tested cheese, it stands to reason that phthalates would show up in most packaged or processed food, whether it's organic, gluten-free, or otherwise "healthy" or not.
While you may already be looking for a "phthalate-free" label on your cosmetics and skin care products, the study is a good reminder to limit plastic interaction across the board, especially for longer-term storage (like boxed foods that sit in pantries or grocery stores for months or years). Here are a few more tips from Dr. Kahn to minimize phthalate exposure:
- Check the code on your plastic bottles: 3 and 7 may have phthalates.
- Switch to glass and stainless-steel containers and water bottles.
- Eat more organic items, particularly fruits and vegetables. If you can avoid using the plastic produce bags at the grocery store, do so.
- Purchase a whole-house water-filtration system rated to remove phthalates.
- Switch personal care products to phthalate-free by checking out resources like the Environmental Working Group.
- Sweat more, as phthalates could be excreted in sweat. Infrared saunas are a great way to eliminate stored phthalates.
Want to know more about the negative effects of phthalates in your body? Here's Dr. Kahn's deeper dive.