My Facebook wall lit up last week with this piece from the Seattle Times, discussing the finding of phthalates in boxed macaroni and cheese. Phthalates are an industrial chemical used to soften plastics. Many of us grew up unwittingly consuming phthalates as we chewed on plastic teething rings and hot drank bath water in which our rubber duckies swam. Phthalates were banned from children’s products in the USA over a decade ago. Despite this ban, our children are still exposed – now from foods, beverages, and pharmaceuticals, likely due to machinery in the food processing industry and the soft plastics that encase our beverages and, in teens and adults, the lids on our to-go lattes in the morning.
Phthhhh, you may say. Why should I be concerned about the mac and cheese I had as a kid? Why should I be concerned about my kids’ occasional mac and cheese treat?
Phthalates act as endocrine disruptors in the body, which means they interfere with normal hormone functioning in humans and animals. In the case of Phthalates, research shows that they bind to steroid nuclear receptors and steroid binding proteins. This can then inhibit a message to the cell’s nucleus to do any number of things a hormone would signal a nucleus to do (think fundamental actions at the DNA level that will impact cell growth, differentiation, and changes in gene expression) or prevent a hormone from sending a message to other areas of the body.
Estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, estradiol (all are sex hormones), aldosterone (blood pressure), and cortisol all utilize steroid receptors. If phthalates bind to the receptor then these hormones cannot bind to the cell to send a message the body needs to receive.
What does this look like in real life? Phthalates are believed to disrupt male hormones like testosterone and have been linked to genital birth defects in infant boys and learning and behavior problems in older children. It may also disrupt cortisol and progesterone balance by binding to Corticosteroid-binding Globulin (CBG). One study shows that parents with higher levels of phthalate metabolites in urine who have difficulty conceiving appear more likely to give birth to low-weight infants (via IVF).
This article from Slate suggests an occasional box of mac and cheese isn’t going to kill anyone. And while that is true, this argument completely fails to acknowledge that exposure is coming from multiple sources – some of which we cannot easily control. Because phthalates soften plastic, they are used in thousands of products, such as:
- building materials
- household furnishings
- clothing (especially plastic rain coats)
- cosmetics and personal care products (nail polish, soap, shampoo, hair spray)
- nutritional supplements
- herbal remedies
- medical devices
- children’s toys (especially imported from outside the USA)
- glow sticks
- modelling clay
- food packaging
- cleaning materials
We consume phthlates via direct ingestion, inhalation, intravenous injection and skin absorption. Products containing phthalates result in exposure through direct contact and use (like hair spray), indirectly through leaching into other products (the mac and cheese), or general environmental contamination (when your neighbor sprays for insects).
At the end of the day, whether or not we buy boxed mac and cheese is one exposure we can easily eliminate. Considering phthalate levels were up to 4 times higher among all boxed mac and cheese (even organic) when compared to a block of cheddar cheese, this becomes an actionable step to reduce exposure. Stopping my organic boxed mac and cheese habit and AquaNet addiction is easier than getting my neighborhood and city to stop using insecticides in public spaces and more realistic than refusing to use vehicles for transportation. Those with dentures or medical devices can reduce additional exposure by these means as well and use dietary changes to help their body process and eliminate existing exposure.
While we may not be aware of all the chemical exposures our bodies have to work around we can change our diet and lifestyle to reduce exposure and make sure our body has the best chance to detoxify what it comes in contact with. Beyond reducing exposure to environmental pollutants and processed foods, consuming a diet rich in vegetables (especially greens and cruciferous veggies) can ensure your body has the necessary components for efficient detoxification. This is especially important if you or your family have a history of infertility, hormone imbalances, or cancer, or if you or a family member suffers from autoimmune disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes and there is no family history of such illness. Our genetics outline a future if we take the past of least resistance, yet lifestyle and environment determine whether or not we succumb to genetic predisposition. If you have an illness that is unheard of in your family history it may mean that you’ve been exposed to something unique your parents and grandparents have not which triggered genes to promote disease. Much can be done to reduce damage and in some case, put such illnesses into remission and your food choices ALWAYS have an impact on the outcome of your diagnosis, regardless of disease. If you’d like to learn how diet can affect your health or disease management, schedule a complimentary call with VIBRANCE to discuss how you can take control of your health.
Sources and More Info:
An excellent post discussing phthalates and the mac and cheese study in more depth: (Examine.com)
Messerlian, C., Braun, J. M., Mínguez-Alarcón, L., Williams, P. L., Ford, J. B., Mustieles, V., … & Hauser, R. (2017). Paternal and maternal urinary phthalate metabolite concentrations and birth weight of singletons conceived by subfertile couples. Environment International, 107, 55-64.
Sheikh, I. A., & Beg, M. A. (2017). Endocrine disruption: In silico interactions between phthalate plasticizers and corticosteroid binding globulin. Journal of Applied Toxicology.
Schettler, T. E. D. (2006). Human exposure to phthalates via consumer products. International journal of andrology, 29(1), 134-139.