Phthinking about Phthalates


I was at a potluck buffet the other day, where a gal was going down the line looking for vegan options. I pointed out the Asian Pasta Salad I'd brought, and she pointed out the Artichoke-Sundried-Tomato Pasta Salad she'd brought. But when I also directed her to the fried tofu squares (mentioning these three dishes will give you totally the wrong impression about this potluck--believe me, there were plenty of the usual suspects: meatballs, mac & cheese, etc.), she said she couldn't do tofu either because of the way soybeans mimic estrogen. I didn't ask further questions, but I assumed she was a cancer survivor avoiding soy for its possible feeding of cancer growth. Sites like and say soy is fine in moderation because no conclusive link has been found, but you can hardly blame people for wanting to be extra cautious. Not always easy to do, considering how ubiquitous soy has become in processed foods. Whether or not soy wreaks hormonal havoc, however, increasing evidence points to an equally common substance proven to mess with our endocrine system: phthalates. According to the CDC, phthalates are the chemicals "used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break." And they are everywhere, from vinyl tubing at the hospital to packaging materials to shampoo to the pool floatie you use in the summer. And while we humans haven't eaten the stuff directly (no "phthalate frittata" or "phthalate galette" recipes yet), we still get plenty in our systems.

Phloating on phthalates -- but I still want the pizza slice,!

That dish we've covered in plastic wrap? We just added phthalates to the ingredients. That packaged food we bought at the store? More phthalates. As you know, I've been trying to cut back on plastics and packaging, but a quick mental inventory of our fridge and pantry reveal:

  • about half my produce in plastic bags;
  • bread in the freezer--each in its own phthalate-soft plastic bag;
  • homemade waffles in a Ziploc in the freezer;
  • homemade cookies in a Ziploc in the freezer;
  • cooking oil (not olive) in a clear plastic bottle;
  • tortilla chips in a clear plastic bag;
  • breakfast cereals with plastic inner bags.

Bummer. We eat just about all of those every day.

On the plus side, our mustard, mayo, relish, peanut butter, yogurt, half-and-half, and other fridge standbys are all in glass jars. They cost more, but they don't have to be bought that often.

I'm (kinda) happy to learn the solid, opaquer plastics like milk gallon jugs and sour cream containers do NOT contain phthalates. Maybe that will balance out the liquid soap, shampoos, and lotions our family uses, which contain phthalates, phthalates, and more phthalates.

And then there are the phthalates we get from fast food. Like mercury building in a fish, fast food picks up phthalates at every stage, from its shipping, covering, and packing, to its prep at the hands of gloved employees, to its delivery, often with another side of plastic. A Business Recorder article quotes a public health professor as saying, "People who ate the most fast food had phthalate levels that were as much as 40 per cent higher."

So what, you say? What can omnipresent phthalates do to us, especially since we "pee them out" as we go along? Well, back to the old endocrine disruption I started with. The CDC is still saying the effects of phthalates are "unknown," but another government agency, the NIH, classifies them as "suspected endocrine disruptors." And how exactly might they disrupt us?

Endocrine disruptors interfere with the production, release, transport, metabolism, or elimination of the body’s natural hormones. They can mimic naturally occurring hormones, potentially causing overproduction or underproduction of hormones. They may also interfere or block the way natural hormones and their receptors are made or controlled.

If you've ever had your hormones out of whack, the last thing you want to hear is that something you're eating or exposing yourself to might lead to your hormones getting out of whack. As a person with three adolescents in the house, I, for one, do not need further convincing that out-of-whack hormones should be avoided at all costs. They never, never lead to anything good.

So how can we de-phthalate, or at least reduce our phthalate exposure?

  • Make your own food more often, from scratch ingredients;
  • Reduce soft plastic use with inert, reusable materials. I'll be buying more nylon produce bags and doing a little more wrapping in wax paper and foil for the freezer. I threw out my plastic microwave cover and replaced it with a glass crock-pot lid and paper towels. And I'll be replacing the reusable plastic "shower cap" style bowl covers I've had for years with silicone covers.

It's a strange, plastic world we live in, and there's no escaping it entirely, but for our own health we can shoot for coming in on the less-plasticky end of the spectrum.