Comfort food has had a bad few weeks. Last month, French fries took a hit, with a new study finding that of all the potato preparations, fries and fries alone were linked to death risk over the years. This week, many people’s favorite comfort food (not to mention a staple in many kids’ diets), macaroni and cheese, was condemned: The boxed versions in particular contain a variety of harmful phthalates, which are known endocrine disruptors, especially for males, and as such are a particular risk to pregnant woman and young children. While the new study is alarming in some ways, it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know: Hazardous chemicals are more prevalent than we like to admit, and we’re exposed to them in ways we don’t always think about. The bigger issue is what we do with that information.
Here’s a quick rundown of the new research. It focused on the chemicals in 30 different types of cheese product: 10 types of cheese powder from macaroni and cheese, five types of processed cheese slices and 15 types of actual cheese of different varieties, including blocks, slices, string and cottage cheese. Macaroni and cheese powder had four times the phthalates that natural cheese did. Even when fat content was adjusted for, it still had twice the amount. Processed cheese slices had about three times the phthalates that natural cheese did.
“Products with higher phthalates in fat,” the researchers write, “likely pick up more of these chemicals during food processing and packaging.” This last part is an important point: Phthalates aren’t added to foods intentionally—they’re unwitting additives that come from plastic tubing or other part of the machinery involved in processing foods.
So what is the takeaway from a study like this? It’s probably not that our favorite comfort food has betrayed us. There are a couple of other, more important points. One issue, says David L. Katz, founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, is that chemicals are just a drop in the bucket when you take into consideration our average dietary pattern of people in the U.S. “I would say this is a bit like worrying about lead poisoning…by being shot with a lead bullet! The bullet hole is the bigger problem in that context. So, too, here.”
In other words, we’re focusing on the wrong part of the problem. The issue isn’t so much that macaroni and cheese powder contains chemicals, it’s that we eat a lot things that are terrible for us—perhaps far worse for us than the chemicals.
“Most of the packaged mac ‘n’ cheese products are variations on the theme of hyper-processed junk, although some are certainly better than others,” says Katz. “Still, a good diet would mostly avoid such products—and to the extent occasional bad exposures show up in a good overall diet, it is the effect of the overall dietary pattern that all but invariably predominates. I think a fixation on specific chemicals in specific foods is just a welcome excuse to ignore what we know about the massive influence of dietary pattern on health—and our apparent unwillingness to do much of anything with that information.”
The other issue is that mac and cheese certainly isn’t the only way we take phthalates in (they’re found in everything from shampoos to flooring), and they’re certainly not the only type of hazardous chemicals we’re exposed to. It’s hard to know where we’re exposed to them, how to avoid them, and even if they affect our health in any real way.
Those who are worried about the chemicals in processed foods and can afford it can buy organic and hormone-free products make their own, healthier versions. Even these won’t be totally harmful-chemical-free, but it will be better than the processed versions. But not everyone can afford to do this, and this is another problem again.
The study may then be just a good example of how prevalent chemicals are (and perhaps how bad our diets are in general). Some compounds we may be aware of, some we may ignore—and some we may not think of at all. But studies like this, zeroing in on one of our favorite go-to foods, sure make the issues hit home. Perhaps now it’s a matter of how we, and “big food,” will respond.
More Info: www.forbes.com