Member question: Chemicals in Your Mac&Cheese?

Title adapted from the original NY Times piece, about which a Co-op member reached out to me via email. Her question:
 

Parents like me are reading this NYT article and feeling super concerned. What do you make of it?
It does not mention brands, but since
the manufacturing process is the cause for concern,
I am guessing organic brands such as
Annie’s and Back to Nature are no better than Kraft. Thoughts??

 
Yes, I would have to agree with this member that we can’t count on organic or “natural” brands to be any different than more conventional ones in this respect. I choose to focus on this statement from the article: “The chemicals migrate into food from packaging and equipment used in manufacturing and may pose special risks to pregnant women and young children.” Meaning, it’s likely processed foods in general that are causing the problem, not necessarily the ingredients used. 
 
As consumers, we must always be on the lookout for things that appear too good to be true… they probably are. We can’t lull ourselves into believing that Annie’s mac&cheese is a health food, leagues above Kraft. While there may be some differences, such as the type of dyes and additives used, boxed mac&cheese is only ever going to be so healthy. Convenience foods should always be suspect for a number of reasons: Whether it’s reduced nutrient value, excess sodium and preservatives, or contamination from processing, the result is just less good than what you would make at home. A home-made cookie is “healthy” because it is made from wholesome ingredients and does not contain preservatives (though should still be eaten in moderation, as part of a balanced diet…). An organic, gluten-free cookie that you buy at the store may appear to be a health food, even though it probably contains similar additives, starches, and simple sugars to those found in Oreos. Do you eat more cookies if they have healthy-sounding labels? Are you more likely to buy them? This is called a “health halo”. 
 
The best way to protect ourselves, as consumers, is to cook our own foods as much as possible (more tips here). For processed foods and skin care, we can turn to locally produced goods (Wozz! marinades, OhVeggies! sauces, Olivia’s Croutons, Jeshua’s chimichuri, Yummy Yammy salsas, Halls Apiaries honey, Badgerbalm products, to name a few of many). Local is a place to start, because such companies are likely to be smaller, with better ability to answer questions truthfully about each step in their manufacturing process.
 
Additionally, perishable packaged foods that will spoil in days or weeks (ie. milk, yogurt, tofu) are more likely to contain fresh ingredients. As the NYTimes article advises, foods that have been around for a long time should be avoided because they have more opportunity to be exposed to chemicals from their manufacturing and packaging.
 
But mostly, aim to limit intake of processed foods. 
 
As with MANY issues in our food system, cosmetics, and household products these days, it is almost impossible for us to know exactly which ingredients may be present (labeled or not) that are hazardous. On the one hand, exposure to environmental toxins is all around us and we should not get too obsessive about it. On the other hand, there IS a fair amount of evidence about things like flame retardants, certain pesticides, and chemicals leached from plastic (phthalates) that are known to be harmful, yet are unregulated. From the article:
“If you asked most scientists about the top 10 or 20 endocrine-disrupting chemicals they worry about, phthalates would be on that list,” Dr. Patisaul said.
“We have an enormous amount of data.”
So what can we do? Educated consumers can try to avoid harmful products, but in addition, applying grass-roots pressure to get greater levels of oversight in food, cosmetics, and general manufacturing can make a difference. This issue was highlighted a few weeks ago, when the media exposed FDA studies that have found lead in baby food for years. The most disturbing aspect of this story is that there is no upper limit set by the FDA for lead in baby food- or any foods other than candy. This is unacceptable, as there is NO safe level of lead intake for babies and children.
 
There are probably harmful chemicals in plastic wrap, there is glyphosate in RoundUp, and there are many other known or likely carcinogens that are readily available to purchase in this country. I believe most Americans would prefer to buy products that do not have a link to adverse health effects. Many do not have the time to do their own research, do not have access to “alternative” products, or do not wish to be seen as paranoid or obsessive, in order to buy things that are not harmful. Even if you do operate on the paranoid/obsessive scale, as I do, it’s almost impossible to truly eliminate plastic– it’s everywhere! Keyboards, phone cases, the interiors of cars, the caps to my metal tube of body lotion, the list goes on.
 
Good things are happening- such as pressure to get lead paint eliminated from children’s toys, the banning of Triclosan from soap- but I feel like we can’t keep up with the new stuff they’re throwing at us all the time.
What we can do is urge our government to require companies to study pesticides, additives, and ingredients PRIOR to their widespread use. AND to remove those substances from circulation that are known to be harmful. 
To take action, try one or more of the following:
1. If you’re already a user, Facebook can connect you with your elected officials!
2. Or find your senators here and your representatives here
3. More info, here, on getting in touch with said peeps
 
Some good news? Being outside, walking, and spending time with people can all make you happier and healthier- luckily, there are some easy wins out there, in addition to all the scary stuff 😊 
 
Please let me know if I can provide any additional information and insights. Find my email in the bio, below, and reach out any time. 
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Hannah Brilling

Hannah Brilling

Hannah is the Co-op Nutrition Specialist. She has a rich background in wellness and nutrition with a BS in Health Science (Nutrition) from Keene State. Contact her at HannahBrilling at coopfoodstore dot com.
Hannah Brilling

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