The FDA's decision to let food manufacturers continue using bisphenol-A (BPA) in food packaging is the best news I've heard in a long time.
This may surprise regular readers of this blog, who will remember me fulminating against BPA here, here and here.
The thing is: the ruling highlights that food manufacturers and regulators can't always be expected to make the best decisions for our health. And this realization -- somewhat perversely -- gladdens my heart because it should prompt consumers to think even harder about their food choices. (Sorry folks.)
In response to a 2008 petition by the Natural Resources Defense Council to ban BPA on the grounds that it causes harm, the Food and Drug Administration last Friday rejected the petition, claiming insufficient evidence for adverse health effects in humans. The agency did say it would continue studying BPA for more conclusive evidence, but critics argue there’s already ample evidence indicating that the chemical may increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, fertility problems, diabetes and obesity.
BPA contains so-called xenoestrogens (i.e. estrogen-like chemicals that mimic the natural human hormones) that are being linked to a growing number of health problems, such as early puberty in girls, reduced sperm counts, altered functions of reproductive organs, obesity, and increased rates of breast, ovarian, testicular, and prostate cancers. They are thought to be particularly harmful to fetuses, infants and children, but may affect adults too. Particularly worryingly to cancer patients, BPA can block the effects of certain chemotherapy drugs, even at low concentrations.
So what’s a concerned eater to do whilst the health authorities and food industry continue to drag their feet? (Which they may continue doing for some time to come, given that the leading players in the $8bn BPA market and the $60bn canning industry aren’t likely to go quietly.)
We can vote with our wallets.
For one, we can choose BPA-free packaged foods (this post lists products available in PBA-free cans). In response to consumer demand, some food producers, such as Eden Organic, began removing BPA from its cans years ago; others, such as Campbell’s Soup, joined them more recently. Nestlé and Heinz and ConAgra have indicated they will phase out the chemical in coming years.
To keep up the pressure on food manufacturers, packagers and retailers (who, following the FDA’s ruling, may feel tempted to continue using BPA), we should keep writing letters asking for dangerous plastics to be removed from our food. Feel free to use the form letter I suggest here.
Even more radically, we can make more home-cooked meals from fresh, unprocessed food and cut down the amount of packaged comestibles we eat in the first place.
As a study published last year showed, families who gave up canned foods and food packaged in plastic containers saw their levels of BPA fall by 66% in the space of three days. And as I show regularly in my cooking videos, it doesn’t take much time or effort to prepare meals from fresh, unpackaged ingredients.
Meanwhile, here are some other simple ways of avoiding BPA and other plastics:
- Buy fresh, unpackaged food from vegetable stores, CSA schemes, farmers' markets etc. and using it up quickly
- Use a freezer for long-term food storage, reducing the need for cans (frozen vegetables and fruits are more flavorful and nutritious than canned ones anyway)
- Drink fresh water from glass or stainless steel containers, avoid sodas, beer and other beverages in cans.
- Replace plastic storage containers with glass or stainless steel containers
- Can your own food: I preserve vegetables and fruits in in glass jars (much tastier than store-bought canned equivalents) and was surprised to see how easy this is. When canning food, be careful to follow reliable instructions to avoid poisoning your family with dangerous bacteria. Also, don’t buy cans whose lids are lined with BPA-containing plastics; I recommend brands with glass lids and rubber seals (e.g. Weck).
- Babies should drink from glass bottles; toddlers can use stainless steel sippy cups. Avoid plastic bottles or cups and formula packaged in plastic-lined containers.
- Use ceramic, glass or metal bowls to prepare or serve food. This is especially important if you use a microwave oven.
- Use wooden or stainless steel cooking tools (spoons, spatulas, strainers etc.) instead of plastics.
- At the dining table, use china or earthenware plates, and pitchers and glasses made of glass, not plastic.
- Instead of a plastic water kettle, use an old-fashioned enamel or stainless steel stove-top kettle.
- Instead of using automatic espresso machines, opt for a stainless steel stovetop espresso maker. If you make drip-filtered coffee, use paper filters in a ceramic, glass or stainless steel filter holder, rather than plastic equivalents.
Copyright Conner Middelmann-Whitney. Conner is a nutritionist, health writer and cooking instructor; she posts weekly anti-cancer cooking videos on YouTube. She recently published Zest for Life, The Mediterranean Anti-Cancer Diet, a cancer-prevention nutrition guide and cookbook based on the traditional Mediterranean diet (available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online bookstores). Conner offers nutrition consultations via Skype; please consult her website for details.