Annie’s takes steps to address phthalates
By Lisa Stiffler, guest contributor
This article was originally published in July 2021
For health-conscious families looking for a cheap, convenient food that appeals even to picky little eaters, boxed mac and cheese by Annie’s Homegrown has historically made the cut. It’s a quick-and-easy comfort meal made with organic ingredients and none of the dayglo orange that colors competitor’s products. And let’s not forget Annie’s adorable fluffy spokesbunny, helping charm its way into many a grocery cart.
But Annie’s took a hit a few years ago when a report funded by advocacy groups revealed troubling levels of phthalates in processed foods. The study highlighted dairy products and was especially concerning when it came to mac and cheese, testing 10 mac-and-cheese powders from various companies and finding they were tainted with plasticizing chemicals at levels four times higher than natural cheeses.
The groups backing the 2017 report put Kraft, which dominates the marketplace, front and center in its public calls for action, and did not publicly call out which other brands were tested, implying the issue was industry-wide. But Annie’s reputation as a better-for-you processed food meant the report had an outsized effect on its public image in the eyes of many consumers. (Ironically, since 2014 both Kraft and Annie’s have had the same parent company; General Mills.)
“Organic brands are particularly vulnerable,” said Mike Belliveau, executive director of Defend Our Health, one of the four organizations that funded the report. (Annie’s has both products that are U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certified Organic and products made with organic ingredients; both were tested in the report.) “As consumers, we pay a premium for organic brands, expecting them to be free from harmful chemicals.” While the Organic Foods Production Act does restrict chemical use in foods, it does not address phthalates.
While Annie’s wasn’t alone in the report’s results, it’s the first and so far the only company to announce it’s taking steps to address the presence of phthalates in mac and cheese.
“Annie’s remains committed to sourcing high-quality organic ingredients and ensuring our food is handled in the safest way possible,” the company shared recently on its FAQ page. “We continue to work with our trusted suppliers to eliminate ortho-phthalates that may be present in the packaging materials and food processing equipment that produces the cheese and cheese powder in our macaroni and cheese.” (The company did not elaborate when contacted, referring back to the original statement.)
Belliveau applauded the pledge. “As far as we know, it’s the first time a big food company has agreed to detoxify their food chain (of phthalates),” he said.
A few months after posting the pledge, the company also faced a proposed class-action complaint filed in federal court, alleging that more than 20 products are mislabeled and falsely advertised as “Made with Goodness!” because the presence of ortho-phthalates is not disclosed on the packages, according to the National Law Review. The article noted that similar false advertising claims have been dismissed in the past.
“The everywhere chemical”
Phthalates, including the subcategory of ortho-phthalates, are a family of industrial chemicals linked to numerous health problems. These so-called plasticizers can disrupt hormone function and impact fertility and reproduction, particularly testes development. Growing amounts of evidence connects them to immune disorders, such as allergies, asthma and eczema, as well as behavioral problems in children.
So what are chemicals developed nearly a century ago for PVC pipes and pesticides doing in our food?
Phthalates soften plastics and are added to tubing, conveyor belts, gaskets and other devices used in food production. When food comes in contact with these materials, it can pick up some of the chemicals. Phthalates are also used in food packaging.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has set recommended exposure limits for five phthalates added to materials used in food production. In setting the standards, the EU agency reviewed studies on numerous food items. While phthalates have a chemical affinity for sticking to fats, scientists found them in everything from baby food milk powders to bread, from olive oil to wine, and from cereal to condiments.
Phthalates have additional pathways into our bodies. Dubbed “the everywhere chemical” by one health organization, more than 18 billion pounds of phthalates are produced annually worldwide. They’re used in wide-ranging products including construction materials such as PVC pipes, automotive plastics, furniture upholstery, shower curtains, wallpaper, garden hoses, medical tubing and IV bags, cosmetics, shampoos, lotions, nail polish and toys. We can breathe phthalates in the air and dust, or absorb them through our skin. Mothers can pass the chemicals to a fetus or nursing babies through breastmilk.
Washington state has for more than a decade taken a leading role nationally in curbing the use of phthalates in products for children. New rules approved in 2019 expanded its ability to limit public exposure to phthalates and other harmful chemicals. While Washington doesn’t have the authority to regulate food (that lies with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) it could potentially address phthalates in machinery used in processing, according to the state’s Department of Ecology.
U.S. lacks standards
While Annie’s has committed to scrubbing phthalates from its food processing, there’s little movement among other food manufacturers.
On its FAQ page, Kraft explains that it does not intentionally add phthalates to its products. It goes on to say:
“Kraft Mac & Cheese is safe, and like others in the food industry, we are working to learn more about how trace amounts of phthalates may be introduced into certain products and if there is anything else we can do to reduce or eliminate them.”
The FDA has not issued a standard for phthalates in food, despite petitions asking it to step up the regulations. The EFSA set its daily limit for ingesting four of the different forms of the chemical at 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight. It reported that Europeans, on average, were consuming 7 micrograms per kilogram.
On its website, Annie’s assures consumers: “Our mac and cheese products have been tested and we know any trace of phthalates are below the EFSA standard.”
But given that people are exposed to the chemicals through different foods and pathways, health experts and advocates agree that there can be cumulative effects from many sources. Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital who researches the effect of phthalates on children, has commonsense advice for families eager to reduce their exposures. That includes a diet that favors fruits and vegetables and restricts fast foods.
“One of the best things is to have a diverse diet,” she said, “and try not to eat the same thing every day.”
Environmental reporter Lisa Stiffler writes for local and national publications that include Geekwire, NPR and The Seattle Times.
PCC and phthalates
PCC supports Annie’s commitment to eliminating phthalates in its products, and has supported efforts in the organic community to develop packaging and processing standards for organic products targeting indirect food additives such as phthalates and bisphenol-A. Phthlates are a prohibited ingredient in PCC’s health and body care products, though they are more difficult to address as a food additive because it is currently difficult to determine whether phthalates are present in a food product or pinpoint the source.