It’s been four years since environmental advocacy groups paid for an independent laboratory to test for industrial chemical phthalates in cheese. The testing resulted in the detection of phthalates in 29 of 30 varieties of cheese products.
Ten different phthalates in all were identified with up to six in a single product. The results in the 2017 study reported that DEHP, the most widely restricted phthalate, was found more often and at a much higher average concentration than any other phthalate. Of great concern, the testing revealed average phthalate levels were more than four times higher in macaroni and cheese powder samples than in hard blocks and other natural cheese.
Health News Writer, Roni Caryn Rabin, in an article on the 2017 study, The Chemicals in Your Mac and Cheese (NY Times, 7/12/17), noted that phthalates were banned from children’s teething rings and rubber duck toys a decade ago, but they may still be present in high concentrations in your child’s favorite meal: macaroni and cheese mixes made with powdered cheese. Rabin reported that 10 different varieties of mac and cheese, including some that were labeled organic, all had high levels of phthalates. She also noted the unsurprising, yet startling, fact that every day in the United States, two million boxes of mac and cheese are sold.
How do phthalates get into mac and cheese products? They are not deliberately added to food. Rabin writes: The chemicals migrate into these products from packaging and equipment used in manufacturing.
Four years after the news of this 2017 study, some good news was reported by Michael Corkery in Annie’s Pledges to Purge a Class of Chemicals From Its Mac and Cheese (NY Times, 2/19/21). Corkery noted that Annie’s Homegrown has begun working with its suppliers to eliminate the offending material, ortho-phthalates, from their food processing equipment and from packaging material.
But Corkery also emphasized that the task to root out phthalates in food manufacturing could be daunting. The reason why: the chemicals could enter the food in many places along the supply chain, including at the farm where flexible plastic tubes carry milk from the barn, or in the making of the cardboard container that holds the noodles. And why mac and cheese products? Corkery explained: The chemicals tend to collect in foods with a high fat content, such as cheese.
With this news of Annie’s Homegrown pledge earlier this year, I recalled the appealing recipe for Cauliflower Mac and Cheese which was included in Michelle Obama’s wonderful American Grown, The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, which we reviewed here over ten years ago. This recipe stayed in the back of my mind since it was a brilliant way to work nutritious and good-for-you cauliflower into a dish that children love to eat. It reminded this home cook of the many recipes which sneak beans into the diet of children.
Why not make homemade mac and cheese for a little comfort food as we near the light at the end of the pandemic year’s dark tunnel while avoiding the issue of phthalates in a store-bought box of mac and cheese?
I decided to tweak for the adult palate Michelle Obama’s recipe by using a very special and award-winning cheese from a local cheesemaker, Maggie’s Round, one of 7 different styles of artisanal farmstead cheeses produced from raw milk by Cricket Creek Farm, a small, grass -based cow dairy nestled in the Berkshire hills of Williamstown, MA. The dairy’s flagship cheese, Maggie’s Round is a semi-firm, raw milk cheese inspired by the Tomas of the Italian Alps. Handmade from the milk of the dairy’s own grass fed cows and aged for 4-9 months, it has flavors of swiss and cheddar. On a visit last Saturday to the Troy Waterfront Farmers Market on its opening day outdoors for the season in downtown Troy (Rensselaer County) NY, Cricket Creek Farm’s friendly cheesemonger highly recommended its use in a mac and cheese recipe, much appreciated advice!
This home cook also tweaked the Michelle Obama recipe by using authentic Italian Parmigiano Reggiano D.O.P. aged 2 years, local Maple Hill dairy’s organic plain kefir cultured whole milk, and Bionaturae’s artisan 100% organic whole wheat Penne Rigate. Later in the season, I’ll look forward to using cauliflower from my Roxbury Farm CSA farm share with a repeat preparation of the recipe, but for now I used Stahlbush Island Farms’ frozen cauliflower (which also made the recipe a cinch to prepare more quickly). All of these additional ingredients were available at the Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany, NY.
Homemade Cauliflower Mac and Cheese (serves 2 or 3, easily doubled)
1/2 pound whole-wheat penne
10 Oz package of Stahlbush Island Farms frozen Cauliflower (or 1/4 head cauliflower, cut into florets)
8 ounces Cricket Creek Farm’s Maggie’s Round, grated
1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 cup plain kefir cultured whole milk
Freshly ground black pepper and very lightly salted
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the pasta according to the package directions until al dente. Drain and set aside.
Place frozen cauliflower into a small amount of boiling water. Cover; steam for five minutes or until tender. Drain. Place the cauliflower in a blender and puree.
In a medium pan over low heat, place the pasta, the cauliflower puree, the cheeses, and the milk. Stir gently to combine and continue stirring until the cheese is melted.
Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
Michelle Obama’s recipe also suggests sprinkling chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley over the mac and cheese. Perhaps when fresh local cauliflower is available, fresh parsley will be too. Next time!
(Frank W. Barrie, 4/9/21)