Review of recent report on the presence of phthalates in 'mac and cheese'

CRIS Director Michael Holsapple reviews a new report on the presence of phthalates in food.

July 17, 2017

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Michael Holsapple is Director of the Michigan State University (MSU) Center for Research on Ingredient Safety (CRIS) and Professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.  He is also a toxicologist with over 35 years of experience.  He recently reviewed a new report on the presence of phthalates in food.

I had the opportunity to review a recent report, “Testing Finds Industrial Chemical Phthalates in Cheese.”  My initial reactions to this report were that there’s really nothing new here – except for the possible focus on ‘mac and cheese’ – and that there are some serious concerns about the quality of the study reported.  Phthalates have been studied as possible endocrine-disrupters for many years, and there is no question that these types of chemicals can be associated with adverse health consequences.  However, as a toxicologist with over 35 years of experience, I am a firm believer in the premise that “the dose makes the poison”.  As such, it is important to underscore that regulatory agencies like the US FDA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have weighed in on the safety concerns of phthalates.  So there is also no question that conditions of exposure to phthalates that are considered to be safe have been calculated – e.g., terms like ‘tolerable daily intake (TDI)’ and ‘allowable daily intake (ADI)’ – and are enforced.

In terms of my concerns about the recent report I would like to note several points.  First, unlike the regulatory authorities, who assign specific safe levels to individual phthalates, the investigators seem to suggest that all phthalates are equally hazardous.  Second, it is important to emphasize that the recent report neither identifies the specific investigators nor acknowledges their sources of funding.  This level of transparency is critical to the scientific process.  In that regard, it is important to re-emphasize that CRIS is supported, in part, by contributions from industry.  But it is also important to note that these contributors recognize that CRIS is an independent, academic center.  Finally, the report includes a reference to the “Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging”, and to the link, www.KleanUpKraft.org, both of which may provide some clues as to who provided the support for these studies.

In terms of the actual results, I would make the following observations.  The study reports results about the ‘Concentration of TOTAL Phthalates’ in two ways – first, ‘In FAT (measured)’ and, second, ‘In PRODUCT (calculated)’.  Their focus is clearly on the former ‘(In FAT)’, which presents ppb levels that are ~10-fold higher than the latter ‘(In PRODUCT)’ for ‘mac and cheese’.  You would think that the levels of phthalates in the actual product would be more meaningful to consumers.”

Finally, I want to draw attention to the fact that the media accounts of this report seem to have almost singularly honed in on the results of the analysis of phthalates in ‘mac and cheese’.  One can speculate that the link highlighted above, www.KleanUpKraft.org, provides a clue as to why the media accounts of this report have generally focused on ‘mac and cheese’.  In that regard, it is important to underscore the fact that Kraft-Heinz is not one of the CRIS industry contributors. I grew up eating ‘mac and cheese’.  One of the founding principles behind the creation of CRIS is that consumers should be encouraged to make evidence-informed decisions.  In my opinion, the evidence in this new report for the ‘Concentration of TOTAL Phthalates – In PRODUCT (calculated)’ are not compelling enough for me to stop enjoying an occasional plate of ‘mac and cheese’.

Michael Holsapple

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