Are You Aware of the BPA in Your Food?
Updated July 2014
Do you remember the plastic water bottle controversy in early 2008? It involved bottles that leached the toxic chemical BPA (bisphenol A) into the drinking water. There was a frenzy by the bottle makers to replace those products with new models. BPA-free water bottles were a hot selling 2008 holiday gift, and it's labeled on nearly every water bottle you will find today. It soon became more widely known that our largest source of BPA exposure is actually in food and beverage containers. It turns out that most metal cans have a plastic or epoxy liner that contains BPA, and the health risk is much greater than those plastic water bottles. The FDA estimates that 17% of the U.S. diet is comprised of canned foods, so we are exposed to BPA nearly every day.
So what is BPA, and why should I care?
BPA is a synthetic estrogen that is used to manufacture plastic. It is present in a wide variety of plastic products like CDs, auto parts, adhesives and bottles. Products that have the #7 recycle symbol on them likely contain BPA. We are now learning that it’s also inside almost all of our “tin cans”. BPA exposure has been linked to breast and prostrate cancer, birth defects, obesity, heart disease, early puberty and a number of other health issues in humans and animals. Searching the Internet for “BPA health risks” will yield over 220,000 articles. The bottom line is that it can’t be good for you!
What are the producers and government doing about this?
There has been a wide range of actions to the BPA exposure issue since 2008. Let’s review some of the highlights. After the negative publicity on water bottles, many manufacturers introduced BPA-free models. In April 2008 the Canadian government banned the sale of baby bottles and baby products that contain BPA. Walmart and Toys R Us followed by banning those baby products and water bottles in their stores. The U.S. government was very slow to address the BPA issue, possibly due to the heavy lobbying efforts of the chemical and plastics industry. In September 2008 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a National Toxicology Program report listing "some to minimal to negligible concerns" about BPA exposure to children and women. Surprisingly an October 2008 FDA report reiterated its position that BPA levels are safe, although it is doing further studies. Unfortunately, it will be mostly up to us, the consumer, to minimize our exposure to BPA.
2014 UPDATE: While the federal government stalled, states began taking the matter into their own hands. By late 2011 California joined 10 other states in banning BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups. Finally in July 2012 the FDA relented and officially banned BPA in infant products. Soon after we found some very interesting information about the reason for the ban. According to a treehugger.com report the American Chemistry Council petitioned the FDA for this ban to stop further scientific research into BPA. Their report stated "the American Chemistry Council is laughing at us today; they were out of the BPA baby bottle business anyways and the decision has no real impact. They have cleared the decks for the big battle, over the epoxy linings of cans from food to beer to soft drinks, and the opposition just lost a big part of their argument, because cute vulnerable babies don't drink beer."
For food and beverage containers some producers have made considerable progress. When we first wrote about BPA in 2008, the only widely distributed brand with a good selection of BPA-free cans was Eden Organics (they started replacing BPA linings in 1999). By 2010 companies like Trader Joe's, Native Forests and Wild Planet were offering BPA-free cans, and the list continues to expand. We found a great resource for BPA-free canned foods at thesoftlanding.com.
While there has been some good progress, the average person's exposure risk remains very high, as new sources of BFA contact continue to grow. The latest find is that BPA is present on thermal paper cash register receipts, which is almost unbelievable. The BPA coating easily rubs off onto your fingers and is transferred to food and ingested. Unfortunately, it will be mostly up to us, the consumer, to minimize our exposure to BPA.
What should I do?
If 17% of our diet is canned foods, our diet is a good place to start. Unfortunately, the alternatives are not quite as simple as buying foods in BPA-free cans. There are many more products available in BPA-free cans today, but some products aren’t. You should also consider products in glass jars or waxed cardboard containers, instead in cans. Continue to scan the internet for the latest list of BPA-free canned foods, the thesoftlanding.com list is a great resource.
If you can’t totally avoid BPA cans, know which products carry the highest risk. An Environmental Working Group study of canned foods found that green beans, soup, ravioli, tuna and mixed vegetables had the highest BPA levels. Apparently foods with high fat or acid content have more leaching, so at least try to avoid them in cans. Also, don’t store or microwave your leftover food in plastic containers that have the #7 recycle symbol on them.
The best alternative is to kick the canned food habit and start cooking with fresh ingredients. Lloyd Alter, in a Treehugger.com article had a great quote: “We need to start cooking instead of just heating.” We couldn’t agree more. Check out our Simple Ecology Recipes for healthy and tasty meal ideas.
So how can you avoid BPA in Canned Foods?
Use Fresh Ingredients
Use Frozen Ingredients
Use Dry Ingredients
Use only BPA-free Canned Foods
Use Canned Foods from Glass Jars or Waxed Cardboard Containers
Store Leftovers in Glass Jars or Waxed Cardboard Containers