Just because a chemical is present doesn’t mean you have to worry about it

The Pediatric Insider

© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD

Advocacy groups have been busy lately with their fancy-pants chemicalz detection science instruments, and their press releases have made it into the news. But is there news here, and are these chemicals something parents really need to worry about?

First it was a big lead from the New York Times called “The Chemicals in your Mac and Cheese.” The article started:

Potentially harmful chemicals that were banned from children’s teething rings and rubber duck toys a decade ago may still be present in high concentrations in your child’s favorite meal: macaroni and cheese mixes made with powdered cheese.

Oh noes, not high levels! The chemicals they’re talking about are from a family called “phthalates,” which sounds scary and difficult-to-pronounce. (Words shouldn’t start with four consonants. On this we should all agree.) Phthalates have been in wide use for over 80 years in plastics and other compounds. Though they’re not added to cheese, they’re on the coatings of tubes and platforms and whatever else is used in the machinery to make Magic Orange Cheese Powder. Foods with a high surface area (like a powder) are going to come in more contact with it, and a teeny bit of a trace of a few molecules are going to transfer over.

Important point: these chemicals have been in our food for many, many years. What’s changed is that we’ve now got fancy equipment to measure it. The Times story is quoting a kind of press release – not a medical study, or even anything published in the medical journal. It’s a “study” done by a consortium of food advocacy groups. It’s being promoted by an organization called “KleanUpKraft.Org” (Cutesy misspellings are at least as bad as starting words with four consonants, K?) And their “high levels” are in tiny parts per billion, at levels that are very low compared to amounts that cause adverse effects in animal studies.

Just because you can detect a chemical as present doesn’t mean there’s enough of it to hurt you. Mercury and arsenic are part of the natural world around us, and any food tested with equipment that’s sensitive enough will find at least traces of these and many other chemicals. It is not possible to get the values of phthalates or arsenic or many other chemicals down to zero in our foods.

Speaking of chemicals, this week another food advocacy organization announced that they’d found traces of an herbicide (glyphosate, found in Round-Up) in Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. And in every flavor tested, too, except Cherry Garcia, which is kind of nasty-tasting anyway (I’m sticking with Chunky Monkey, which wasn’t even tested.) But: their press release didn’t even reveal the levels that they found, only that they found it. Maybe it was one part in a zillion. Who knows? But: Do you think if the value were genuinely high they’d hide it like this? No way. It’s there in some kind of teeny amount, and they’re trying to scare you.

Don’t fall for all of this “The Sky is Falling, There’s Chemicals in My Food” hype. Just because something is hard to pronounce doesn’t make it dangerous, and just because something is present doesn’t mean it’s going to kill you. We’ve all got enough to worry about without being scared of Mac and Cheese and Ice Cream. In fact, a little comfort food in these troubled times would probably be good for all of us. Maybe even the grumps at KleanUpKraft.org.

By the way, I don’t disagree with one thing – homemade Mac n Cheese is at least as good as that boxed orange stuff. Though sometimes, I won’t deny it, the orange stuff sure does hit the spot…

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7 Comments on “Just because a chemical is present doesn’t mean you have to worry about it”


  1. Thank you for this post. I was concerned about phthalates as I have been reading that there may be a link between this chemical the reason why girls are experiencing earlier puberty these days. What are your thoughts on why girls seem to be starting puberty sooner? I would love to see a post on this.

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  2. Dr. Roy Says:

    Debbie, I wrote about that a while ago — 2008 (yeesh! have been doing this so long?!) — which means it’s time for an update. Meanwhile, here’s the previous post: https://pediatricinsider.wordpress.com/2008/04/05/shes-too-young-is-puberty-starting-early/

    Bottom line: early puberty in girls is most closely associated with improved nutrition and increased rates of obesity. Phthalates were introduced decades prior to the change in timing, which has stabilized. There are far, far more potent estrogenic compounds that are about as ubiquitous and don’t seem to affect puberty (soy, marijuana, flax, thyme).

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  3. Demodocus Says:

    My toddler considers anything but actual boxed m&c to be an abomination unto God. Fortunately, he accepts it with peas and corn thrown in.

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  4. Rachel Says:

    Very interesting! Last week someone sent this to us https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/atrazine-water-tied-hormonal-irregularities/. Is there truth in it?

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  5. Dr. Roy Says:

    Rachel, the study showed that women in two different communities (vermont versus illinois) had different frequencies of menstrual issues and measurements of estrogen levels (about 50 women from each state were studied.) And we know that levels of a specific weedkiller atrazine are different in the water supplies.

    But: there are many other differences between these communities. They have different weather, and different air pollution; and the women have different jobs and lifestyles. I’ll bet the rate of owning wifi transmitters is different, as is the frequency of getting hair dyed, or whether they drive SUVs, or how often they eat fast food, or how close their homes are to copper mines. Anyone can keep going with this kind of list — there are thousands of ways women in Illinois and vermont are different in terms of their family backgrounds, genetics, environmental exposures, infectious exposures, and lifestyles. It’s also very possible that the water contained other contaminants (the authors of the paper only tested atrazine.) So: why would the authors assume that the REASON for the observed hormonal differences was the atrazine?

    It’s not inconceivable that the atrazine played a role. I do believe that possible link deserves further research. Bt epidemiologic papers are a starting point — they can never prove causation.

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  6. AJC Says:

    Also, the article mentioned that “some” phthalates are banned in Europe. This is true, but the ones banned aren’t the ones in Kraft Mac and Cheese because I can buy US imported Mac and Cheese at every UK chain grocery store.

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  7. jane Says:

    Yes, phthalates have been in our food for decades (and sperm counts have been declining for decades) but only the past couple of generations have had plastic everything from birth onward. Glyphosate, “the” active ingredient of Roundup, is also an endocrine disruptor, and Roundup is more than a hundred times more toxic than glyphosate alone. In recent years, the agricultural use of Roundup has skyrocketed because it is now used not just on Roundup-resistant engineered crops, but on conventional varieties to kill them right before harvest, ensuring that there will be no time for it to break down. If you are middle-aged, the quantity of Roundup you ate as a child was less than a twentieth of what your kids are now eating. Are the quantities only a few parts per billion? Often, but hormones and endocrine disruptors are active in those quantities – and in fact, paradoxically can be more active in tiny quantities than in larger quantities! The myth of progress tells us that whatever we are doing now must be better than whatever we did before – and therefore, can’t possibly be contributing to modern health problems. Scientific evidence tells us there is reason for serious concern.

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