It’s no secret that macaroni and cheese isn’t the healthiest option for dinner. But now, we know exactly what we’re eating… for better or for worse. (By the way, this is the best way to make mac and cheese, period.)
A new Belgian study of 10 different mac and cheese products—nine out of 10 of which were produced by Kraft—found a dangerous chemical lurking in everybody’s favorite comfort food. Concentrations of phthalate, a hormone-disrupting chemical found in plastics, were more than four times higher in powdered mac and cheese than natural cheeses. Even organic brands weren’t safe, the New York Times reports.
The news gets even worse from there. Phthalate levels in powdered cheese were higher than those of natural hormones in the body—that can pose serious health risks for men, pregnant women, and children. Not only could this chemical disrupt male hormones like testosterone, but studies have also linked it to genital birth defects in baby boys as well as learning and behavior problems in older children.
But how could something that tastes so right be so wrong? Unfortunately, although phthalates are not added to food purposefully, the chemical can leach into it from food processing equipment like plastic tubing and conveyor belts, as well as printed labels or plastic packaging. Take other fatty fare such as baked goods, infant formula, meats, oils and fats, and fast food off your grocery list, too; because phthalates tend to bind with fats, you’ll find higher concentrations of them in those foods.
Countries across Europe have banned many phthalates, thankfully. However, the Food and Drug Administration still allows this chemical in food, classifying it as an indirect food additive. So no matter what brand of mac and cheese you buy in the U.S., you risk exposure to this chemical. You’re better off skipping the boxed stuff entirely, experts say.
“Our belief is that it’s in every mac ‘n’ cheese product—you can’t shop your way out of the problem,” said Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, one of four advocacy groups that funded the report.
If you still think there’s no better combo than pasta and cheese, you’re not alone. Thankfully, you safely can make it at home (no health hazards here!) using any of these homemade macaroni and cheese recipes.