First it was baby bottles, infant formula can liners and baby toys that started going BPA-free to protect the most vulnerable members of our society from the potentially harmful effects of Bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical component of a hard type of plastic called Polycarbonate (PC).
Now, under pressure from consumers, a new wave of food brands are banishing BPA from their packaging by either switching the composition of their can liners or moving away from cans altogether to different packaging formats. In addition to the brands listed below, Whole Foods Market claims that 27% of their canned private label items (“365” brand) are now in BPA-free cans, but customer service could not provide me a list of which ones when I contacted them via e-mail due to fluctuation in available BPA-free can supply.
The BPA Basics
Polycarbonate (PC) is a plastic used for a variety of purposes, including to line the insides of metal food cans and tubes to keep their contents from touching–and therefore reacting with and being contaminated by–the metal.
The problem with BPA is that animal studies show it to be an endocrine disruptor. In other words, it mimics the effects of certain human hormones, notably estrogen, and can therefore interfere with normal human development–particularly of the brain, prostate, and sex organs–and bodily functions, particularly of the metabolism. While the body is able to excrete a dose of BPA within a few hours, many experts are concerned about the health implications of regular, chronic exposure to this chemical, even in small doses, such that it is constantly present in the body. Furthermore, experts disagree on what a “safe” dose may actually be. Indeed, data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggest that BPA is present in the urine of 93% of Americans, indicating that pretty much all of us are exposed to it on a regular basis–both from the environment as well as the food supply. Canada has declared it toxic and banned it from infant and baby products. The US Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing the evidence regarding BPA and human health before deciding on whether to follow suit, but in the interim, states that it is “taking reasonable steps to reduce human exposure to BPA in the food supply.” The agency has promised to issue a decision on whether or not to ban BPA from food and beverage packaging by March 31, 2012, so stay tuned…
While direct causation between BPA exposure and adverse health outcomes in humans has not yet been established, recent research has shown that women with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) had significantly higher levels of BPA in their blood compared to a control group (and that higher BPA levels were also correlated with insulin resistance in the PCOS group). A larger 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association similarly showed that higher concentrations of BPA in the urine were associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and abnormal liver enzymes in the blood–the latter of which may be clinically indicative of fatty liver disease or other metabolic conditions. Some research also suggests that maternal exposure to BPA may be associated with behavioral issues in young girls, but more research is needed. Associations may not be causation, but it surely seems safe to conclude that high exposure to BPA certainly isn’t benefiting anyone.
- Most canned foods (with the exception of brands listed below). A compendium of non-profit agencies sponsored a study and report entitled “No Silver Lining,” in which they investigated BPA levels in food from 50 cans of food purchased in 19 states. They found BPA in food from 92% of the cans, and variables such as product type, brand, organic or conventional or place of purchase had no bearing on the level of this chemical residue.
- Most metal food tubes (such as those used for tomato paste)
- 5 gallon bottles of water, such as those used in your office water cooler (unless specifically labeled BPA-free)
- Any plastic labeled with a #3 (“V” or “PVC”), including some vegetable oil bottles or some clear food packaging
- Any plastic labeled with a #7 (or “PC”), including some Tupperware products or other similar food containers bearing this label. Note that many of the disposable food storage containers, like Gladware and Ziploc, are made with #5 plastic and therefore should not contain BPA.
Where BPA isn’t:
- Any plastic labeled #1 PET, such as most single-serve water bottles and soft drink bottles
- Any plastic labeled #2 HDPE, such as gallon milk jugs, juice bottles, cereal box liners
- Any plastic labeled #4 LDPE, such as frozen food bags, bread bags and certain squeezable plastic containers
- Any plastic labeled #5 PP, such as yogurt, hummus or cottage cheese containers, margarine tubs, drinking straws
- Tetra-paks (a.k.a. aseptic packaging, such as the cartons used to package coconut water, shelf-stable ricemilk, chicken broth, etc..)
- Glass, Ceramics, Pyrex, Corningware. Noted that some studies have found trace amounts of BPA in jarred foods owing to BPA used in the LID liners, even though the glass jars themselves are BPA-free.
BPA-Free Pantry Staples
Fortunately, there are plenty of BPA-free versions for most every pantry staple. You just need to be aware of what the alternatives are, and vote with your wallet to send a message to food manufacturers that it’s time to eliminate BPA from their packaging.
Since eliminating all canned foods from your life may be impractical, I’d suggest focusing on the products you use with the most regularity–and especially ones you use to feed your kids. If you are pregnant or nursing, I would suggest reducing your intake of canned foods as much as possible so as to err on the side of caution.
- Eden Foods markets their beans in a BPA-free can and have been doing so for years.
- According to the company’s Facebook page, Amy’s Kitchen, known for their canned baked beans, refried beans, bean soups and chilis, started switching their products over to a BPA-free can in early 2011. The switch is supposed to be be complete by year-end, which is just about now…
- A new company, called Fig Food Co., has recently started distributing its ready-to-eat beans (and bean soups) at Whole Foods and some of the local health food stores on my stroller circuit. Their organic, low-sodium products are cleverly packaged in a BPA-free tetra-pak. I picked up a box of their Organic Baked Beans–which, incidentally, are also gluten free and vegetarian– the other day and they were quite tasty!
- Of course, if you can find the organizational skills to plan ahead and soak dry beans overnight, that’s the cheapest and surest way to ensure there’s no BPA in your beans!
- Marinara sauce: Any sauce sold in a glass jar is going to be mostly BPA-free (though trace amounts may be present owing to BPA used in the lid liner). Still, the jarred stuff will almost certainly have much less BPA than canned stuff, so this packaging would be preferable.
- Diced and crushed tomatoes:
- Eden Organic sells crushed and diced tomatoes in glass jars. It appears their canned tomatoes may still be in cans with BPA-containing liners.
- Muir Glen Organic appears to be the first marketer to have cracked the code on a BPA-free can for an acidic product like tomatoes. According to the company’s website, at this writing, the company is “transitioning to can liners that do not use BPA as we are canning this year’s harvest.” I take this statement to mean that many of the products currently on store shelves are probably still the old BPA-lined variety, though I understand that products with a “use by 2013” date should indeed be the new BPA-free batch.
- While you’re waiting for Muir Glen’s newest, BPA-free cans to arrive on a shelf near you, an Italian brand called Pomi markets a variety of tomato products, including chopped (diced), crushed and tomato sauce, all packed in BPA-free Tetra-Paks.
- Tomato Paste: While most tomato pastes are sold in cans or aluminum squeeze tubes (also BPA-lined, unfortunately), a brand called Bionaturae sells its version in a 7 oz glass jar. I bought mine at Whole Foods.
- Currently, Native Forest is the only brand I’m aware of that markets a canned, BPA-free coconut milk. Unless you use large amounts of coconut milk very regularly, however, I personally wouldn’t worry about using a conventional brand for the occasional 1/2 cup you use every month or so.
- For staples like peas, corn and string beans, choose frozen over canned. (They taste way better and are more nutritious, anyway). To heat them up, either steam the frozen vegetables on the stovetop, or microwave them with a few tablespoons of water in a covered microwave-safe glass or Pyrex/Corningware dish. DO NOT microwave them (or any food) in a plastic container!
- For specialty items, like artichoke hearts, you can easily find products packaged in a glass container. Choose these instead of canned, unless you’re buying Native Forest brand, whose canned fruits and vegetables are in BPA-free cans.
- Look for soups and broths sold in Tetra-Paks, like those by Pacific Natural Foods, or Imagine Foods.
- Alternatively, use bouillon cubes for broths
Canned Kiddie Pasta
- I can think of 100 reasons to avoid buying canned pasta products like Chef Boyardee Ravioli or Campbell’s SpaghettiOs for your kids. But their BPA content is probably sufficient to make a compelling argument for choosing refrigerated (fresh) or frozen ravioli instead and/or boiling your own alphabet-shaped dry pasta. We’re all crazy busy, but are any of us really *THAT* busy that we can’t even find the time to boil water for pasta?
- Look for mainstream brands of tuna sold in those “flavor fresh” pouches rather than cans, such as StarKist or Chicken of the Sea. The pouches are BPA-free.
- If you’re willing to spend more for a more sustainably fished tuna, look for brands called Wild Planet or Vital Choice; they both market a BPA-free canned tuna product. (You can order tuna online from both companies, along with a variety of other canned seafood products.)
- Whole Foods brand canned tuna (and salmon) are consistently in BPA-free cans as well, according to an email response I received from their customer service