The myth of the BPA-free diet
Seven days of trying to evade a chemical
Consider a typical cold-weather, American meal: chili. Filled with beans, protein and vitamin-packed peppers and tomatoes, it’s pretty healthy, right? Perhaps not when you consider the packaging some of its ingredients come in. If you’re like most Americans, you make this meal with a couple of cans of beans, a big can of tomatoes, maybe a can of tomato paste. To wash it down, you crack open a can of beer.
All of those products come in packaging lined with bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that mimics estrogen and is raising concern among consumers and many scientists for its links to a host of health issues: prostate, breast and testicular cancer; lower sperm counts; obesity; aggression in girls; reproductive and neurological defects; cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes. It’s commonly found in everything from canned foods and drinks to hard, clear plastic adult and baby bottles, pacifiers, sippy cups, dental sealants, sales receipts and plastic utensils.
Though reports of its potential health effects and presence in the linings of containers and cans have long been reported in science journals and the media, an article, “Concern over canned foods,” in the December issue of Consumer Reports has brought concerns over BPA to a broad audience. The magazine’s researchers found that nearly all of the 19 name-brand canned foods they tested—soup, juice, tuna, green beans and more—contained BPA, even those labeled “BPA-free.” They also found it in some frozen food bags and in packages lined with an epoxy-based material, like some convenience soups in plastic packaging or peel-back lids. The levels varied wildly, with the highest found in canned green beans and soup, and it didn’t matter whether the food was certified organic or not. While federal guidelines for safe levels of BPA are at 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight, animal studies have shown adverse effects at much lower levels—2.4 micrograms per kilogram of body weight. One can of green beans accounted for 80 percent of that lower number in a 165-pound adult, according to the report.
It got me thinking, if I were to try to cut BPA from my diet, how might that affect my life? I’d already replaced my trusty #7 (polycarbonate) plastic water bottle with a stainless steel bottle, amid reports that #7 leached BPA. (Nalgene and other companies have since started making BPA-free versions of these bottles.) I knew not to microwave any sort of plastic, as that’s been shown to leach a range of chemicals present in various plastics, BPA and hormone-disrupting phthalates among them. But if I stopped eating foods packaged in materials known to house BPA, what would my diet look like?
I decided to find out by challenging myself to a seven-day, BPA-free diet. The parameters: No canned foods or drinks. No food packaged in anything with a waxy liner. (Not that all waxy lined containers have BPA, but some do, and I wasn’t sure which ones, so I decided to try to stay away from them all.) Nothing with a metal lid since the coating beneath it has been shown to have BPA, which ruled out almost all glass jars. No frozen foods. And my diet had to be nutritionally sound. If all I ate were eggs and fresh foods, unpackaged in the produce section, I could eat a relatively BPA-free diet (discounting the lining on some of the boxes they were shipped in). But I’m six months pregnant, which was another reason BPA-free sounded appealing, since laboratory animals prenatally exposed to it developed various health and developmental problems, and babies take in more of it per body weight than adults. So I was not going to give up any of the major food groups.
I don’t drink beer or soda these days, so for me, this meant cutting out fruit juices in containers with waxy linings, canned soup, prepared chicken broth and instant oatmeal, which I suspected had BPA. It also meant making some modifications, like replacing the coffee I drink with one ground into a compostable bag. Or eating an orange rather than drinking orange juice. Or soaking dried beans overnight and then cooking them for over an hour rather than cracking open a can. It meant not eating at restaurants, since I had no control over their cooking methods, and not going to the weekly dinner at my mom’s to spare her any inconveniences.
I drew up a careful shopping list, focusing on bulk and fresh foods and headed to the store.Plastic wrapped
I decided to visit two stores I knew had a nice bulk foods and produce section. Other grocers in town fit that criteria, but I chose the Great Basin Community Food Cooperative and Whole Foods Market.
By the time I got to the co-op, thoughts of plastic in general were swimming in my head. Though my diet was not to be plastic-free, I wanted to reduce my plastic use as much as I could anyway. Not getting funny looks at the register for sticking all of my produce in a canvas bag without another bag wrapped around them was a nice atmospheric benefit of the co-op. I also got about a pound of dried pinto beans from the bulk section.
At Whole Foods, I found the chicken I would roast on Sunday and then make homemade broth from for Monday night’s soup. I found granola for my cereal, wild rice, and nuts for snacking. I also found myself overwhelmed by how much plastic is used for nearly every food we buy.
The ills of other plastics often accompanied reports I’d read during my BPA research. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), plastic listed as #1, is linked to cancer, liver and reproductive problems. It’s found in soft drinks, salad dressing and ketchup bottles. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), labeled #3, is linked to autism and cancer and is found in everything from shrink wrap and deli wrap to shower curtains, baby toys and window frames. Looking at aisle after aisle of the grocery store, I found myself both horrified and thankful that my diet challenge was limited only to reducing BPA. Even apples have a little plastic sticker on them, and bulk foods have to go in a bag to get them home. If I were to cut out plastic from my diet completely, I’d starve.
As it was, I ate very well. Breakfast was usually coffee with granola cereal and milk. Lunches were either a cheese and veggie sandwich or baked potato with veggies and cheese. Snacks were fruit, nuts and hardboiled eggs. Here’s what the first six days of my dinners looked like. You’ll hear about day 7 later:
Day 1, Sunday: Roasted chicken and vegetables with stewed apples. After dinner, I had to make homemade broth from the chicken carcass to save for Monday night’s meal, when I’d have less time to cook.
Day 2, Monday: Chicken and wild rice soup with homemade chicken broth.
Day 3, Tuesday: Burritos using dried pinto beans, cheese and veggies, and brownies for dessert. I’d been soaking the beans since the morning, and they cooked in about two hours.
Day 4, Wednesday: Another busy night when a quick meal was necessary. Using leftover beans, I made a beans, rice and veggie dish called menestra with a fried egg on top.
Day 5, Thursday: Creamy mushroom pasta with a spinach salad. I used milk instead of cream since I wasn’t sure if BPA would be on the cream’s container lining, and my milk jug was labeled a comparatively innocuous #2. The pasta came from a paperboard box.
Day 6, Friday: Breakfast for dinner—pancakes and eggs. It’s possible there was BPA in the cap of the syrup bottle.
There were other items I ate that I was skeptical about: What’s the butter packaging lined with, or the salt container or the butcher paper that held my chicken or the olive oil’s metal cap? Not being a scientist, I couldn’t run any tests, so I took my chances. But it was another reminder that much of what we eat is surrounded in unknown substances. Manufacturers don’t have to list “bisphenol A” on the ingredients label.Chemical romance
Though too polite to say it directly, Steve Hentges thinks my diet is kind of silly.
“Based on what governments have said, which is based on the science, there’s no need for consumers to do what you’re attempting to do yourself,” he said. “The products you’ve been looking at—canned food products—what you’re doing is avoiding safe, nutritious foods and cost-effective foods at no apparent benefit.”
Hentges is a man who still has the first BPA-laden Nalgene water bottle he got more than 10 years ago. He says he’d even put a #7 container in the microwave and routinely washes plastic dishes in the dishwasher. He’s the executive director of the Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group of the American Chemistry Council.
He points to a number of government bodies, including our own U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as well as regulatory bodies in Europe, as having a consensus on the safety of bisphenol A, a $6 billion industry.
Materials from the American Chemistry Council quote the FDA as saying in February, “With regard to BPA generally, based on all available evidence, the consensus of regulatory agencies in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan is that the current levels of exposure to BPA through food packaging do not pose an immediate health risk to the general population, including infants and young children.”
What the American Chemistry Council’s materials don’t mention is that the FDA’s science advisory board rejected that declaration, as it was based on two industry-funded studies, ignoring the hundreds of studies showing adverse effects from BPA. A 2004 review of 115 published studies on BPA showed that 90 percent of government studies found adverse effects at low doses, while no industry-funded study did.
Hentges says the studies the FDA based its decision upon cited more than 200 sources. Nevertheless, after conducting a review of more than 100 new studies on BPA, the FDA was expected to make a new declaration on Nov. 30 regarding whether BPA is safe to use in food and beverage containers, but it missed the deadline. FDA spokesperson Michael Herndon told the RN&R an announcement about the delay was “forthcoming,” perhaps within the week. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Some things happened that I can’t go into that were beyond our control” and that the agency is “pushing hard for some decision soon.”
Meanwhile, Hentges says, “I haven’t changed anything in my life. I eat canned foods like I always did. I spend my life focusing on the science. Based on what I know, I have no concerns.”Can’t take the heat
Frederick vom Saal also spends his life focusing on the science, and based on what he knows, he’s very concerned. You won’t find a single can in his house, and you’ll never find him putting plastic in the dishwasher or microwave.
He’s a leading researcher on BPA and a biology professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He’s done several studies on the effects of low-level BPA. His most current research is BPA’s effect on “Obstructive Voiding Disorder,” a fancy name for when men have trouble urinating. For two-thirds of men who have it, it’s related to an enlarged prostate, which can be treated. “If you don’t have an enlarged prostate, your urologist doesn’t have a clue what to do with you,” says vom Saal via telephone. “And if you can’t pass urine, it can kill you. With bisphenol A, the question is always, are the outcomes adverse? Well, I consider death a reasonable adverse outcome.”
Vom Saal has prenatally exposed mice to BPA and watched as they got older and developed prostate cancer and obstruction to their ability to pee normally. The mice’s exposure to BPA was about 10 times lower per body weight than what the average adult takes in on a regular basis.
“So we actually can cause one of the most common ailments of aging in men, we can cause that with bisphenol A,” says vom Saal.
According to vom Saal, the problem with BPA or any other chemical in food packaging is that we don’t know much about them. Food manufacturers don’t have to list them on the packaging. The people who make the eight billion pounds of BPA each year aren’t required to tell consumers which products they’re used in. My confusion over whether BPA was in my butter wrapper wasn’t so odd because, says vom Saal, “We have no idea what chemicals are in them because the laws make it impossible for us to find that out. You can never say with certainty yes or no.” If the packaging is made from polyethylene (#2, such as milk jugs and plastic bags), they wouldn’t be expected to carry BPA, but that doesn’t mean they don’t.
“One of the things absolutely clear is that most plastics today, according to plastic industry websites, are blends of chemicals,” says vom Saal. “The reason plastics are coming out with all kinds of new properties is you take multiple kinds of chemicals and blend them together to create materials with unique strength properties. The idea where you say, ‘You don’t need to worry, this is made from polyethylene,’ well, there’s polyethylene, but what are the 30 other things in there? ‘Oh, but you can believe it’s safe because the FDA says so.’ Has the FDA tested it? No. How can we prove them to be harmful if we don’t know what they are?”
The FDA is chronically understaffed and underfunded, as reported regularly during salmonella or e. coli outbreaks. Conflicts of interests between the FDA and various industries have also been established. Dr. David Graham, the “Vioxx Whistleblower” within the FDA’s Office of Drug Safety, told Manette Loudon in a 2005 interview, “As currently configured, the FDA is not able to adequately protect the American public. It’s more interested in protecting the interests of industry. It views industry as its client, and the client is someone whose interest you represent.”
Meanwhile, U.S. chemical regulators use an innocent-until-proven- guilty methodology. Certainty of harm must be established before measures are taken to protect public health.
“It is a perverse situation, where if you’re a corporation and you know something bad about a chemical, you’re supposed to tell the government,” says vom Saal. “But if you don’t test it, you can declare it safe. The Europeans just passed the REACH law that reverses that. Now, are we going to be looking like a third-world country in terms of chemical regulation with the Europeans requiring chemical testing but in America, we don’t?”
Vom Saal finds the notion of a “safe level” of BPA laughable.
“There is no safe level,” he says. “Anything in your body is going to disrupt your endocrine system. How can it be a safe level when estrogen is controlling things in your body and any BPA that gets in there disrupts the normal estrogen your body is producing? If you look at it like, I just want my body to work the way God intended it to and not the way the plastics industry says it should work, any amount will disrupt the normal functioning of your system.”The seventh day
My conversation with vom Saal took place on a Friday, and my diet’s final day was Saturday. One of the last things he told me was that BPA was in my body whether I was eating from cans or not because it’s in the water. Water pipes tend to be made from PVC tubing, and BPA is often used in PVC. It’s also in newsprint, pizza boxes, CDs, DVDs, the air. Like he said, we don’t yet know exactly where BPA is, but we know that people who’ve attempted diets like mine still have it in their bodies. Studies have found that at least 93 percent of the population has BPA in their urine.
So by day seven, I admit, I was feeling a little defeated. And my husband wanted a hot dog, so we went and ate a hot dog. And chili was heaped atop the hot dog, and I’m pretty sure that chili came from a can. And I ate it with plastic utensils. And my BPA-free diet was shot.
Yet, today, I don’t feel completely powerless. There are ways to reduce the amount of BPA that enters my body. Vom Saal offers a few of them:
• Get an inexpensive carbon filtrating system to attach to your home and work faucet. The carbon can get rid of the BPA before you drink it.
• “Plastics and heat, just stop that,” he says. Even if it says BPA-free, the other chemicals in the bottle aren’t known, so it’s best not to expose it to heat. That means no microwaving plastics—even if they’re labeled microwave-safe—or putting them in the dishwasher. “Anything you buy in plastic that tells you you can heat it, assume that is an absolutely insane thing to do,” he says.
• When possible, choose glass over plastic or cans. Even if the glass has a metal lid, it’s likely to be less BPA than a container fully lined with it.
• If you have to choose between one plastic over another, vom Saal thinks the least worrisome ones are labeled #2 or #5.
Despite regulatory bodies declaring BPA’s safety, I think reducing my BPA exposure can only help me and my baby on the way, who will be sipping from BPA-free containers and playing with BPA-free toys, if I can help it. I’ll likely make chili from a can occasionally, but maybe less so than before; dried beans aren’t that hard to make, especially with a pressure cooker. When I drink beer again someday, it will be from a glass bottle. Canned soup may have to be a rarity. I don’t like the taste of canned vegetables, anyway.