The media has jumped with vigour on a press release from an activist organization (KleanUpKraft) entitled “Testing Finds Industrial Chemical Phthalates in Cheese.” Phthalates are indeed “industrial chemicals” that have various applications. Of course just because they have use in a non-food application does not mean they present a risk if found in food. This is the “Food Babe Fallacy.” Ethanol, for example, is a widely used solvent in the chemical industry and is also added to gasoline, yet we happily drink it. By the way, ethanol has estrogen-like effects, the same effects attributed to phthalates.
Phthalates are chemicals mostly used as “plasticizers” to make certain plastics more flexible, PVC being the prime example. They can also be found in perfumes where they retard the loss of scent and in inks applied to packaging. Finding phthalates in cheese is no great surprise since plastic tubing used in milk processing as well as plastic packaging can leach out small amounts of these substances.
Some phthalates have hormone-like activity as demonstrated in animal and cell culture studies, prompting concerns about exposure in humans during gestation and infancy. It is therefore understandable that their presence in a common food such as cheese would raise eyebrows. But contrary to the numerous articles that have reported on this press release, the presence of phthalates in food cannot be equated to the presence of risk!
One might be able to comment on risk if experiments were to show that consuming mac and cheese leads to a significant increase in phthalates in the circulatory system. The laboratory findings revealed in the current press release, however, say nothing about that. Some reports have stated that the concentration of phthalates in powdered cheese, measured in parts per billion (a part per billion is roughly one drop in an Olympic size swimming pool) is comparable to the concentration of natural hormones in the bloodstream. This is a nonsensical comparison. It does not take into account the extent to which phthalates are absorbed, how they are metabolized, or the degree of their hormonal activity. It should also be mentioned that we are exposed to thousands and thousands of chemicals every day, mostly naturally occurring ones. Many of these have estrogen-like activity. Flaxseed, soy, sesame seeds, oats, beer, lentils, wheat germ and even coffee contain estrogenic compounds in greater concentration than the phthalates detected in cheese.
It is not possible to say conclusively that phthalates present in cheese are of no significance when it comes to health. Given that they do have hormone-like properties, the theoretical possibility of some effect cannot be ruled out. But a demonstration of harm would require far more research than just assaying for the presence of phthalates in a specific food such as cheese. Incidentally, the milk used to make the cheese has a variety of naturally occurring hormones. When it comes to eating mac and cheese, the real concern is about the fat, salt and refined carbohydrate content.