By Dr. Mercola
Food is one of the foundational pillars of good health, providing your body with the energy, vitamins, essential fats and proteins needed to thrive. Eating a variety of whole foods helps provide you with nutrients for good health. One of the leading risk factors to disability is poor diet choices,1 and those poor choices lead to expensive health care costs.
Eating well supports your immune system, slows the aging process, helps prevent many types of chronic diseases and increases your energy level and mood. “Let food by thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” This quote from Hippocrates may be more applicable today than it was when he was quoted, long before processed foods, sodas and energy drinks became the norm.
I’ve been passionate about using food to optimize my own health for over 50 years. Nutrition is clearly a primary strategy for taking control of your health, as you simply cannot out-exercise your mouth. Despite an excellent exercise program, sleeping eight hours a night and staying well hydrated, if your diet is poor, you won’t reap the full benefits of your efforts and may increase your potential risk for suffering from high blood pressure, diabetes and impaired immune function.
A recent study has found one more reason to steer clear of boxed and processed foods, finding chemicals banned from children’s toys a decade ago in high concentrations in food mixes made with powdered cheese, even those marketed as organic.2
Unexpected Chemicals in the Mac and Cheese
Traditionally a favorite food of children, food manufacturers have reduced a dish once made with real cheese and heavy cream to a box of just-add-water-and-boil powdered cheese. Although even in the original form, mac and cheese boosts your blood glucose and insulin levels, the processed and boxed version adds further insult to injury with endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
In a study evaluating 30 different cheese products, all but one were found to be tainted with phthalates. The highest concentrations were found in cheese powder in boxed mixes of macaroni and cheese. The report was conducted by an independent laboratory and paid for by environmental advocacy groups.3 Although several chemicals that fall into the phthalate group have been banned from children’s toys,4 the U.S. has not banned their presence in products that come into contact with foods.5,6
By comparison, Europe has banned most phthalates that come into contact with fatty foods, including dairy products.7 In a scientific review,8 researchers found dairy products were the highest source of food phthalate exposure for infants and women of reproductive age. For this reason, the environmental group chose to have cheese products tested for phthalate levels.
Results show the average total concentration of phthalates in cheese powder sold in boxed macaroni and cheese products was more than four times higher than found in natural unprocessed (not imitation) cheeses.9 Processed cheese slices had three times more phthalates than natural cheese. Even after adjusting for percent fat content in the cheese powder and processed slices, these products still averaged twice the amount of phthalates than natural cheese.
Even milk packaged in glass may have passed through plastic tubes after milking the cow, bringing phthalates right along with it. Robin Whyatt, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University Medical Center and lead author in several groundbreaking studies on phthalates, explained:10
“Milking machines use a lot of plastic and DEHP is free and very lipophilic (fat soluble), and milk is full of lipids, so it just pulls the DEHP out of the plastic tubing and into the milk. So my guess would be that milk is a pretty important source of dietary exposure to DEHP.”
Phthalates at Home
While phthalate exposure from food and personal care products is concerning enough, your exposure doesn’t end there. Multiple studies, by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)11 and independent researchers,12 have found phthalates in the dust residing on your furniture and your flooring.
Combining the results of two dozen dust studies analyzing 45 compounds, researchers found phthalates topped the list in residential dust particles.13 Recent research now links the chemicals found in dust in your home with a growing obesity epidemic.14
Taking dust samples from 11 homes in North Carolina, the researchers tested the extracts on a mouse pre-fat cell model. Although a small study, seven of the 11 samples triggered the cells to develop into mature fat cells and accumulate fat.15 Nine of the samples triggered cell division, developing a larger pool of pre-fat cells.
The research suggests a combination of the endocrine disrupting chemicals in your home may promote this accumulation and growth of fat cells.16 Some experts estimate that children may be consuming as much as 50 milligrams of dust each day. However, amounts as low as 3 micrograms triggered measurable effects in the study. Marsha Wills-Karp, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, commented on the results of this study:17
"There is accumulating evidence exposure to these agents might lead to disease we are seeing in modern cities, such as obesity, asthma and autism. All of those have had a pretty sharp rise over the past 30 years. The question is how strongly [are these compounds] linked to disease."
What’s the Problem With Phthalates?
There are a number of chemicals used in plastic products that are known endocrine disruptors, chemicals that are similar in structure to natural sex hormones so they interfere with the functioning of those hormones. Phthalates are one of those chemicals.
Although damaging to adults and children, endocrine disrupting chemicals present a unique challenge to children whose endocrine systems are still developing. These hormones influence the development and function of nearly every cell and organ in your body, which is why the consequences of exposure may be so far reaching. Phthalates are among the most pervasive endocrine disrupting agents; the EPA states more than 470 million pounds are produced each year.18
Phthalates are primarily used to make plastics flexible and resilient, but they are also routinely found in personal care products, such as shampoos, shower gels and makeup. The prevalence of endocrine disrupting chemicals in personal care products may explain why women often have higher levels of phthalates in their system than men.19 In the past decade researchers have found links between rising levels of phthalates in the human body and the development of:20,21,22
✓ Breast cancer
✓ Type 2 diabetes
✓ Low IQ
✓ Developmental disorders
✓ Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
✓ Behavioral issues
✓ Autism spectrum disorders
✓ Altered reproductive development
✓ Neurodevelopmental issues
✓ Male fertility issues
✓ Testicular problems
✓ Thyroid cancer
✓ Prostate cancer
✓ Cardiovascular disease
Research from the University of Adelaide has now linked levels of phthalates in men to the development of cardiovascular disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes.23 Evaluating the urine samples of 1,500 men, aged 35 and over, the researchers found 99.6 percent had detectable levels of phthalates.
The prevalence of these three chronic diseases increased in men who had the highest levels of phthalates in their body. Senior author, Zumin Shi, Ph.D., at the University of Adelaide’s Medical School, commented on these findings:24
"While we still don't understand the exact reasons why phthalates are independently linked to disease, we do know the chemicals impact on the human endocrine system, which controls hormone release that regulate the body's growth, metabolism, and sexual development and function. In addition to chronic diseases, higher phthalate levels were associated with increased levels of a range of inflammatory biomarkers in the body.”
While 82 percent of the men in this study were overweight or obese, a significant factor in the development of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and hypertension, once the researchers adjusted for this, the association between the diseases and the levels of phthalates in the body was not altered. The same was true when the researchers adjusted for socioeconomic and lifestyle factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption.
Mac and Cheese Part of American History
Macaroni and cheese has been a part of American history since 1937, when Kraft began selling their box mixes, using the marketing ploy that you could feed your family of four for 19 cents. This occurred during the middle of the Great Depression, during which Kraft sold at least 8 million boxes in their first year,25 and has continued to sell well ever since.
Fifty million boxes were subsequently sold during World War II when meat and milk were rationed. Today the product ranks third for “The Crap You Eat in College, Ranked” that must be cheap, fast and easy with bonus points for being gross.26
The product is sold in nearly 50 different varieties in the U.S. Today, it’s estimated that Kraft sells nearly 1 million boxes of their macaroni and cheese every day,27 demonstrating its popularity has only been growing. In 2006, Kraft launched the “Easy Mac Cups” that cut preparation time to 3.5 minutes from 10 minutes,28 delighting college students and triggering a 10 percent rise in sales in 2007.29
While many consider the product to be cheap, convenient and part of their childhood memories, the cost of including processed, boxed foods of any type on your health is significant.
What Makes for a Healthy Diet?
Unfortunately, recommendations for what is a healthy diet is influenced by industry interests and can be deeply flawed. For instance, the recommendations to eat a low-fat diet and switch saturated fats for trans fats are just two examples of dietary guidelines that have led to a virtual epidemic of heart disease, obesity and other chronic illnesses.
There are some foundational principles to eating well that I believe will not change to any significant degree, at least during our lifetime. These include the recommendations to avoid processed foods, limit your sugar consumption and include as much real food in your everyday diet as possible. When you stay close to a whole, unadulterated diet, it is more likely you’ll be eating healthy fats, beneficial carbohydrates and high-quality proteins needed for optimal health.
Take Control of Your Nutrition
I published my first Optimized Nutrition Plan nearly a decade ago, and have tweaked and updated it over the years based on changes in our food environment and scientific evidence. One of the most important aspects of eating optimally is to understand how to support your mitochondria. These little power stations in your cells are at the heart of virtually all disease, including obesity. Your diet is a key component to maintaining and supporting healthy, functioning mitochondria.
Healthy fats are required for optimal health and many may benefit from getting as much as 50 to 80 percent of your daily calories from healthy fats. Protein is also necessary for health, but most Americans eat far too much, which can activate your mTOR pathway, a molecular signaling pathway responsible for either growth or repair, depending on whether it is stimulated or inhibited. Stimulating mTOR may contribute to the development of cancer and other degenerative diseases.
You can read more about my “My Updated Nutrition Plan — Your Guide to Optimal Health” to help you take control of your health, whether you’re just starting your journey or would like to enhance the nutritional plan you are already following. You can also learn more in my latest book, “Fat for Fuel.”
Reduce Your Exposure to Toxic Chemicals
By staying on top of dusting and cleaning you may reduce your exposure to everyday pollutants that promote the growth of fat cells, and thus reduce your potential risk for obesity. Even small amounts of these chemicals may increase your accumulation of triglycerides and fat.
The World Health Organization estimates 25 percent of all deaths are related to living or working in a toxic environment. Your choices of personal care products, diet and common household cleaners represent an immediate risk to your health and the health of your family — and endocrine disrupting agents play a large role in this process. As reported by Tech Times:30
"Researchers said that there are ways for people to limit exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as by eating organic food products, avoiding the use of pesticides at home, limiting the use of aluminum canned food as well as avoiding microwaving and dishwashing plastic."
Also give serious thought to ditching most processed foods to avoid harmful chemicals. Phthalates are by far not the only or even worst chemical exposure you’re risking when eating processed food on a regular basis. Repeated testing has confirmed those who eat primarily organic real food tend to have far lower levels of toxins in their body.
I share many ways of limiting your exposure to toxic chemicals, such as phthalates, BPA/BPS and fire retardant chemicals in my previous article, “Reducing Chemical Exposure Could Save Americans Hundreds of Billions of Dollars in Health Care Costs.”