One of the ultimate comfort foods, macaroni and cheese (or mac ‘n’ cheese, as it’s more popularly known) has been the center of recent safety controversy. Not only is mac ‘n’ cheese under question, but many women wonder if macaroni salads are safe to eat while pregnant as they can be quite similar to dishes such as potato salad.
Regardless of news headlines, macaroni and cheese and macaroni salad can both be a part of your healthy pregnancy diet. Enjoying in moderation and skipping deli macaroni salads in favor of homemade can help keep you safe from foodborne illness.
Back in 2017, American classic macaroni and cheese brand Kraft made news headlines with claims that it contains toxic chemicals. Specifically, phthalates were found in the cheese powder. Is this cause for major concern or just more unnecessary fear-mongering?
Is Macaroni Cheese Safe to Eat When Pregnant?
The claims about harmful chemicals in mac ‘n’ cheese hinged on testing conducted by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging, which actually runs a campaign against the Kraft brand. The testing of mac ‘n’ cheese products done by the Coalition was not part of a peer-reviewed study, which is the gold standard in scientific research.
Phthalates are man-made chemicals known to interfere with the human endocrine system, aka hormones, especially during pregnancy and fetal development (source: BMC Environmental Health).
They are not added directly into foods, instead phthalates ‘leak’ from food packaging or other materials into the food, and dairy products of all types tend to have the highest amount of this leaking.
It’s hard to not be exposed to phthalates, luckily, there is an upper limit to what is known to be safe. Currently, the European Commission on Health and Food Safety has established 0.05 milligrams of phthalates per kilogram of body weight (0.05 mg/kg of body weight) as the limit.
Below this level, there have been no observed adverse health effects when it comes to reproductive and developmental health (source: EU).
So what about the testing done by the Coalition? Even on the high end, the amount of phthalates in macaroni and cheese was calculated to be 218 micrograms (or 0.218 milligrams) per kilogram of the product (source: Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging).
1 cup of Kraft brand mac ‘n’ cheese weighs around ⅕ of a kilogram, meaning unless you’re eating mac ‘n’ cheese all day long it’s going to be tough to reach the current safety limit for phthalates.
For example: a 130-pound (59 kilograms) woman would need to eat 68 cups of macaroni and cheese to exceed this limit!
While the Coalition’s testing called out the Kraft brand directly, since phthalates aren’t added but rather end up in food through their contact with packaging, this information applies to all other brands as well, such as generics, Stouffers, Velveeta, and Annies.
While boxed mac ‘n’ cheese is convenient, many families also choose to make their own or order when dining out at a restaurant.
Typically mac ‘n’ cheese is either cooked on the stovetop or baked in the oven- both cooking methods are likely to get the dish hot enough to kill off any bacteria. The same goes for popular add-ons like bacon, mushrooms, and truffles.
Is Macaroni Cheese Healthy During Pregnancy?
Many women wonder whether macaroni and cheese can be a healthy choice during pregnancy. All pregnancy-safe foods can be part of a healthy pregnancy diet, including mac ‘n’ cheese- yes, including boxed versions!
Whether homemade, from a restaurant, or boxed, macaroni and cheese does tend to be higher in sodium, so if you have high blood pressure it can be best to enjoy smaller servings or make yourself with lower-sodium ingredients.
Similarly, macaroni and cheese dishes are often carbohydrate-heavy with little protein or fiber, meaning it can spike your blood sugar level more. To minimize blood sugar level swings, enjoy mac ‘n’ cheese as part of a balanced meal with protein and veggies.
Is Macaroni Salad Safe During Pregnancy?
Macaroni salad is a Midwest-America staple often served as a side at restaurants and backyard barbeques alike. If you’ve never encountered this type of dish, typical ingredients include macaroni noodles, mayonnaise, sugar, vinegar, celery, bell peppers, and sometimes green peas or ham.
Served cold and similar to coleslaw and potato salad, macaroni salad is one of those foods that’s safest if made yourself (source: NHS). To reduce any risk of foodborne illness, be sure to wash your veggies thoroughly, choose pasteurized mayonnaise, and skip the cold ham when preparing macaroni salad at home.
When macaroni salad comes from the deli counter or salad bar there is a potential risk of cross-contamination and Listeria, especially if cold, chopped ham is included. While you could heat the macaroni salad to make it safe to eat, this isn’t the most appetizing option.
Macaroni and cheese isn’t as scary as the media may make it seem. Regardless of who makes it, enjoying a warm bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese in moderation isn’t cause for concern for you or your growing unborn baby.