Love macaroni and cheese? You may want to read this

A recent New York Times article raised a question about the macaroni and cheese products many Americans are eating – are there harmful chemicals lurking in each bite?

According to the article, one study testing more than 30 cheese products found levels of phthalates present in every product except one. So what is a phthalate, and how concerning is this finding?

We asked UMN School of Public Health associate professor Ruby Nguyen, who is currently researching phthalates, to weigh in.

Health Talk: What surprised you about the studies highlighted in this article? Do you agree/disagree with the findings?

Ruby Nguyen: Finding evidence phthalates are present in a favorite American food – particularly a favorite for children – is an important reminder that in today’s world, phthalates often surround us.  Testing market-ready food is one method of environmental health surveillance, which is an essential duty of public health.  From this we have learned there is a lot of room for improvement despite the current restrictions on phthalates in industry.  However, readers should be cautioned on the potential conflict of interest given the advocacy group funding the testing, and that the results have not been reviewed by other scientists in the field.  What I primarily take away from this article is this: there are modifiable ways all of us can reduce our exposure to phthalates.

HT: How dangerous are phthalates? 

RN: Phthalates have been associated with hormone-dependent outcomes, such as genital development, in both animals and humans.  Specific findings for boys have been noted because of how this chemical affects androgens, which boys need to produce genitalia during fetal development.  

Over the years due to various restrictions, the amount of phthalates in our bodies has decreased, and we observed this among pregnant women.  From our first study in 2000 to our study in 2010, pregnant women’s level of phthalate was cut in half.  However, our work at the University of Minnesota has shown phthalates can still affect genital development in boy babies even when the population level of phthalates low.

HT: Are children at more risk for harm from phthalates than adults?

RN: We often worry about “critical windows” when determining the ultimate risk of chemicals such as phthalates.  Because gestating babies, infants, and children also have many “critical windows” for development, they could be harmed more than adults. Research is ongoing to understand the extent of concern in these critical windows.

HT: Can you tell us more about your research on phthalates and what you’re hoping to learn?

RN: Our team at UMN is part of an important multi-university study on phthalates and their potential health hazards.  Over 6 years ago we invited pregnant women to join our study, The Infant Development and Environment Study (TIDES), which also collects families from New York, Washington and California.  We have been observing the pregnant women and their now 4 – 6 year old children to describe their level of phthalate exposure. The study is particularly aimed at learning about childhood outcomes relating to: neurological development; respiratory conditions, such as asthma; and early cardiovascular disease markers and weight gain.  In addition, we are exploring how harms associated with phthalates may present themselves differently among boys versus girls.

To achieve these outcomes we are part of an ambitious NIH cohort called the Environmental Influences on Childhood Health Outcomes (ECHO) project.

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