Your macaroni and cheese may contain toxic chemicals

It's no secret that kids can't get enough of their mac and cheese, but parents may want to think twice before serving up this comfort food.

A new study, paid for by four separate advocacy groups and conducted by the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging, found America's favorite boxed meal contains the harmful chemical phthalates.

They studied 30 cheese products and found about four times the amount of the chemical in dry cheese packets than in natural cheese.

Related: Best and worst cheeses for your health:

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When eaten in moderation, cheese can be a part of a healthy diet. Many brands are rolling out low-fat and low-sodium versions, but are these alternatives better than the originals? Read on to discover the best and worst types of cheeses for your health.

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Low-fat cheese

Cheese is a major source of saturated fat, but some types of cheese are naturally low in fat like Parmesan, grated Romano and part-skim mozzarella. Consumers can also buy low-fat or fat-free varieties of cheese made from reduced-fat or skim milk. Low-fat options of cottage, ricotta, Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, Colby, Meunster, provolone, Mexican blend or American exist on the market.

How do the experts weigh in on these low-fat alternatives?

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Fat equals flavor

Lower fat versions have a reputation for tasting milder, feeling rubbery in texture and cooking differently than their full-fat counterparts, and one cheese expert has likened the taste of low-fat cheese to that of “an eraser”. In addition, many brands replace fat with fillers to restore cheese’s creamy texture.

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Should I buy Full-fat or Low-fat?

You may need to shop around and experiment to find a great tasting, low-fat cheese that fits your needs. Otherwise, stick to your full-fat favorites, but consume them in moderation or use them to accent dishes.

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Avoid High-Fat Cheese

Try to consume high-fat cheese sparingly. Cheeses to watch out for include goat cheese, feta cheese and blue cheese. One ounce of semi-soft goat cheese has 6 grams of saturated fat, which makes up approximately 29% of the daily value.

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Low-Sodium Cheese

Salt helps transform liquid milk into cheese and determines the cheese’s taste, texture, food safety and shelf life. Since it is integral to the cheese-making process, cheese must contain some salt.

When you’re shopping for low-sodium cheese, one helpful tip is to choose softer, less-aged cheese, which tends to have less salt.

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Try These Low-Sodium Cheeses

Varieties like Swiss, Monterey Jack, ricotta, and Port de Salut are naturally low in sodium. There are also lower sodium varieties of Colby-Jack, provolone, Muenster, mozzarella and Cheddar on the market.

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Avoid these High-Sodium Cheeses

In general, processed cheese like American, blue cheese, Roquefort cheese, parmesan cheese, feta cheese and cottage cheese contain high amounts of sodium. One ounce of Roquefort cheese contains about 507 mg of sodium, which is more than one-third of the recommended average daily sodium intake level. One ounce of grated parmesan cheese contains 428 mg of sodium.

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Low-Lactose Cheese

According to the National Dairy Council, natural cheeses like Cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack, mozzarella and Swiss are great sources of calcium for individuals with lactose intolerance because most of the lactose is removed during the cheese-making process when the curds are separated from the whey.

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Low-Lactose Cheese

In general, more mature, hard cheese has lower lactose content. This is because natural bacteria Lactobacillus turn lactose into easily digestible lactic acid during the aging process.

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Cheese is High in Calcium

While cheese may be high in saturated fat and sodium, it is also an excellent source of essential nutrients like calcium. In fact, cheese is the second highest source of dietary calcium in the American diet.

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High Calcium Cheese

If you’re looking to add more calcium in your diet, the National Dairy Council recommends Swiss, Cheddar, ricotta, mozzarella, Monterey Jack, Gouda, queso blanco, Mexican blend and Colby. Half a cup of part-skim ricotta cheese provides 337 mg of calcium, which is about one-third of the daily-recommended calcium intake for adults ages 19 to 50!

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Is American cheese bad for you?

Many people turn their noses up at American cheese for being "unhealthy" and "not real cheese". American cheese is technically referred to as a "cheese product" because it contains additives like whey, emulsifiers and preservatives. As far as nutrition, one ounce of processed American cheese has 110 calories (80 of them from fat), 6 grams of saturated fat and 180 mg of sodium and provides 30% of the recommended daily amount of calcium and 10% of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A. American cheese may not be the healthiest choice, but, like other cheese, it can be part of a healthy diet when eaten in small quantities.

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Is Cheese Linked to Cancer?

In a new study, scientists from the Kaiser Permanente research center in California looked at questionnaires filled out by women with breast cancer. The questionnaires covered diet and the most commonly consumed dairy products included cheese, ice cream, yogurt, lattes and hot chocolate. According to the Daily Mail, those women who ate even one portion of one of these popular dairy products a day were 50 percent more likely to die from breast cancer within 12 years.

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Do Americans Eat Too Much Cheese?

According to SFGate, the average person in the U.S. eats 30 pounds of cheese each year, three times more than the average person ate 40 years ago. They report, "a variety of health problems are also on the rise, and studies have linked multiple diseases with the consumption of cheese." Heart attacks, caused by the fatty nature of cheese, are one of these frightening health risks.

What Cheese Attracts Mosquitos?

According to the American Mosquito Control Foundation, Limburger cheese has been found to attract mosquitos, so always avoid consuming this cheese before a camp out or hike.

Can Cheese Protect Teeth?

A study in the journal General Dentistry reports that consuming cheese and other dairy products may prevent dental cavities. Eating cheese raised the mouth's pH levels, which lowers the chance of developing cavities. Cheese also sticks to tooth enamel for further protection from acid.

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Phthalates are chemicals used to soften plastic. That's why their use was banned in baby products such as toys and teething rings about a decade ago.

However, foods packaged in plastic also carry the chemical.

Forbes reports phthalates are linked to genital birth defects in baby boys and learning problems in older children. They also pose a risk for pregnant women.

To avoid this harmful chemical, experts advise limiting packaged goods and instead opting for fruits, vegetables and low fat cheeses.

You'll also want to avoid heating up plastic containers with food inside.

RELATED: 9 common foods that contain toxic ingredients

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9 Common Foods That Contain Toxic Ingredients
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9 Common Foods That Contain Toxic Ingredients

Trade foods with scary ingredients linked to serious health risks for tasty, additive-free products.

Mac and Cheese

Banned Ingredients: Coloring agents yellow 5 and yellow 6

The "cheesy" neon-orange color in most store-bought mac and cheese is a result of dangerous dyes made from coal tar, which is also used to seal-coat and preserve products like shiny industrial floors as well as to kill bugs in lice shampoo. Studies have linked artificial food coloring to allergies, ADHD, and cancer in animals, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Eat instead: Pick an organic brand, which means no added artificial colors, no dairy from cows treated with synthetic hormones, and no genetically modified ingredients. Even better, look for one that’s gluten- and wheat-free, such as Annie’s Homegrown Gluten-Free Rice Pasta Shells and White Cheddar, since ditching these may save you from experiencing insulin level spikes and overeating an extra 400 calories per day.

Sports Drinks

Banned Ingredients: Coloring agents blue 1 and blue 2

Similar to yellow 5 and 6, these unnatural highlighter hues offer a rainbow of health risks, including messing with the cognitive function of hyperactive kids, who performed poorly on tests that measured their ability to recall images, according to a U.S. study published in the journal Science.

Eat instead: Water is your best friend during short workouts. For longer activities, you may want to supplement your H2O intake with the new performance drink darling: natural coconut water. It's a good source of electrolytes such as potassium and magnesium. We like Vita Coco Pure Coconut Water and Harmless Harvest 100% Raw Coconut Water.

Related: Satisfy your cheese craving the healthy way with these 10 healthy recipes.

Fat-Free Chips

Banned Ingredient: Olestra (aka Olean)

It was the potato chip industry's answer to their high-fat problem. Too bad making a light chip created a bigger problem: spending too much time in the bathroom. To top that off, these fat-free snacks may also make you fat. In a 2011 Purdue University study, rats fed foods containing Olean ate more overall and gained more weight than those fed a high-fat diet including regular, full-fat chips.

Eat instead: Snack on organic chips (non-organic spuds often carry a ton of pesticide residue) that have been cooked in coconut oil instead of GMO vegetable oils such as corn or soybean, a source of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, such as Jackson's Honest Potato Chips.

Citrus-Flavored Sodas

Banned Ingredient: BVO (aka brominated vegetable oil)

This food additive, which works as an emulsifier in beverages, features bromine, the same ingredient used with some flame retardants in furniture and plastics. Sounds gross, but what's worse is the harm: In addition to the health risks mentioned in our list of 13 banned foods still allowed in the U.S., BVO may also cause build-up in fatty tissues and create reproductive and behavioral problems.

Eat instead: If you're looking to kick your cola habit, reach for sparkling water and add a lime or lemon wedge. When only soda will do, buy one sweetened with all-natural stevia that doesn’t contain phosphoric acid, an ingredient usually added to keep bubbles fresh but that has been shown to block calcium absorption. The new Honest Fizz line quenches thirst without the bitter aftertaste that some stevia-sweetened drinks have.

Related: Find a healthier snack in this list of 40 crunchy and creamy Healthy Snacks for Under 200 Calories

Flatbreads And Wraps

Banned Ingredient: Potassium bromate (aka brominated flour)

A key bulking ingredient, potassium bromate speeds up the bread-making process and cuts costs for manufacturers—and may be linked to kidney and nervous system disorders and gastrointestinal discomfort.

Eat instead: Organic lettuce leaves are the new wrap stars, as this salmon lettuce wrap proves. They're just as convenient for grab-and-go sandwiches and a helluva lot lower-cal than bread.

Boxed Pasta Mixes

Banned Ingredient: Azodicarbonamide

This hard-to-pronounce chemical has been linked to asthma and is banned in Singapore, Australia, the UK, and most European countries. If American food producers exercised a little more patience and just waited one week for wheat to whiten naturally on its own instead of adding this to fast-track flour’s bleaching process, we’d have no worries.

Eat instead: Gluten-free and wheat-free is the way to go, then add your own pasta sauce (basic tomato doesn't take that much time!). Tinkyada Organic Brown Rice Pasta is Kosher-certified, to boot.

Cereal Snack Mixes

Banned Ingredients: BHA and BHT

Both of these preservatives have been found to increase the risk of cancer in animals, and BHA is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. You're also getting heart-unfriendly trans-fats disguised under the new name "monoglycerides."

Eat instead: When it’s party time, an organic mix will protect you from BHA and BHT, and then check the ingredients list to be sure it’s free of trans fat and gluten. Guests will enjoy the crunch of Mary’s Gone Crackers Sticks & Twigs Pretzels Curry, which are also Kosher.

Related: Sneak vegetables into your pasta with these veggie-packed recipes for pasta sauces.

Non-Organic Yogurt

Banned Ingredients: rBGH and rBST

Non-organic yogurts generally come from dairy cows that have been given growth hormones rBGH and rBST to boost milk product. Unfortunately these also boost the level of another hormone called insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), which has been tied to breast, colon, and prostate cancers in some human studies. Many yogurts also contain artificial food colorings and sugar substitutes or high-fructose corn syrup and have little protein, making them less satisfying.

Eat instead: Organic Greek yogurts, such as Stonyfields Oikos (recently renamed Stonyfield Greek), mean no hormones plus more filling protein and less carbs than most non-organic yogurts. For natural added sweetness, top with fresh organic berries to avoid the dangerous pesticide residues or GMOs found in non-organic fruit.

Whole Conventional Grocery Store Chicken

Banned Ingredient: Arsenic (found in chicken feed)

In exchange for pinker, plumper poultry, which appears fresher, you get exposure to this cancer-causing toxin. Traces of an inactive ingredient used in Prozac may also be in some caged chickens' systems (a "solution" to helping them deal with poor living conditions), according to a 2012 Johns Hopkins University study that tested poultry from six states and China. But that is not the worst of it: Scientists also found a broad-spectrum class of antibiotics, which are used to reduce infections and boost bird growth. Unfortunately indirectly consuming these drugs can cause antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.

Eat instead: Pasture-raised, organic poultry saves you from arsenic and GMOs since these birds are fed a traditional chicken diet. If you can, add "air-chilled" to your list of must-haves: Chicken such as Bell & Evans' Air-Chilled Poultry aren't tossed into a community-style chlorine bath where they can pick up bacteria and absorb extra water, which dilutes flavor and changes the weight and, therefore, price per pound.

Related: If you like yogurt, you’ll love these 10 healthy recipe ideas using Greek yogurt!

Rich Food, Poor Food

For more information on how to purchase high-quality rich foods in every aisle from dairy to desserts and to avoid more than 150 poor food ingredients, check out Rich Food, Poor Food.

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