What are Phthalates, and Why are They in Our Food?

Phthalates are a type of chemical, easily released into its surroundings, that have been linked with all sorts of health problems – most notably breast cancer, endocrine disruption and obesity. They’re found in plastics, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, toys, packaging and in our environment. Most Americans, according to the CDC, have phthalates in their bodies!

A recent study by the National Institute of Health showed them to be in food products.

While the authors of the study don’t see a reason for alarm because the amount of the phthalates was less than what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers dangerous, they did not consider the aggregate effects of eating, breathing and absorbing these chemicals.

In the past, phthalates were assumed to enter our bodies through the environment, like through PVC flooring, or via cosmetics. In fact, medical devices, such as IV tubing, contain phthalates and are still in use. So we’ve come to accept that living in a modern wolrd we’ll come in contact with this potentially dangerous plastic by-product.

But we don’t accept that there’s nothing to do about phthalates in food!

Phthalates are leached by some types of plastics, specifically PVC 3 (look at the recycling symbol on a food package). Avoid using these at all cost. You might not commonly have PVC in products in your kitchen, but you could be watering your garden with a PVC hose. In that case, it’s possible for the chemicals to leach into your compost-fueled heirloom organic tomatoes.

Avoid using plastic bottles. Some studies have shown that so-called safe bottles PET (# 1) still have phthalates. Researchers say it could be due to plastics mixing during the recycling process. Whether this is true or not, the presence of them in bottles is cause enough to make an effort to keep plastic bottle use to a minimum.

Skip processed foods. While it is possible for phthalates to enter food via the environment, the more processed a food is, the more opportunities it has to interact with plastics.

  • Kelli

    “they did not consider the aggregate effects of eating, breathing and absorbing these chemicals.”

    This drives me batty. I always wonder if they take that into account when I read statements about toxicity. Sure this one product might not go above recommended guidelines, but toxicity is cumulative, usually stored in fat. If most of the products in your life contain “ok” levels of various toxins, they can’t pretend that’s not going to have an effect.

  • james Cooper

    If you actually read the paper, you will find that phthalate exposures are significantly less than the daily reference dose (RfD). It thus deals with cumulative exposure rather than single dose exposure as you assume. Probably doesn’t cause “obesitsy” anyway.