Canned Food Carries a Hidden Health Risk

The linings of canned food and vegetables may be exposing us to plastic chemicals that pose a serious health threat.

November 10, 2009

Ban the can? The lining of food cans may release unhealthy chemicals into your food.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Your can of soup may the last place where you'd expect to find plastic chemicals. But thanks to an epoxy liner commonly used to prevent canned products from reacting to the metal, everything from canned fruit to canned salmon to canned peas is exposed to plastic chemicals for as long as it remains on the shelf. And that could be exposing you to a risk that's been largely ignored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The liner is manufactured with a chemical called
bisphenol A (BPA), which has been linked to a variety of health problems, including hormone disruption, prostate cancer, diabetes, and obesity, as well as aggressive behavior in children. A new analysis by Consumer Reports confirms that BPA that lines cans ends up in the food that we eat.


THE DETAILS: The testers at Consumer Reports purchased three cans each of 19 different food products, including canned soups, vegetables, tuna, and both powdered and liquid baby formula, as well as some products in alternative packaging materials like plastic pouches and boxes. The highest levels of BPA were found in canned green beans and canned soup. A can of Del Monte Fresh Cut Green Beans Blue Lake had 191 parts per billion (ppb) BPA. Progresso Vegetable Soup and Campbell's Condensed Chicken Noodle soup had levels ranging from 54.5 to 134 ppb. Some noncanned products, such as StarKist Chunk Light Tuna packaged in a plastic pouch, had no detectable levels of BPA, while their canned counterparts did. But other products contained BPA even though they weren't packaged in cans: Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup in a plastic container still had detectable levels of BPA, which was suspected as coming from the metal lid. BPA was also detected in one brand of microwave-in-the-bag frozen green beans.

Read more about BPA:
"BPA Free" Products May Still Contain BPA
Common Chemical Linked to a Slew of Health Problems
A Chemical Threat Gains New Urgency
Questionable Chemical Could Seep Into Your Soda
Chemical in Plastics May be Especially Harmful to Women

WHAT IT MEANS: The report's authors noted that their tests were only a "snapshot" of the industry, and weren't intended to skewer particular brands. But the results support the idea that eating canned food exposes us to a chemical that's been gaining more and more attention for its unhealthy effects. "I'd say the number one source, 99 percent of our exposure to BPA, comes in the lining of food cans, dental sealants, and other plastics," says Bruce Lanphear, MD, MPH, professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and a researcher of BPA.

While all this may seem scary and overwhelming, it just underscores the need to eliminate the exposures to BPA that you can so your body can better cope with the ones you can't:

• Favor fresh food over canned. It's hard to say how big a dent in your BPA exposure you'll make if you eliminate canned food from your pantry. The chemical has been detected in drinking water funneled through polyvinyl chloride (PVC) water pipes. A 2003 study from Spain found BPA migrating into food products from the PVC cling wrap used to wrap the food. BPA is also used as an antimicrobial and antioxidant in cosmetics, "In the U.S, it appears that we're getting barraged by BPA from a whole bunch of different sources," says Frederik vom Saal, PhD, professor in the division of biological science at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and one of the world's leading researchers on BPA's health effects. "But the people making things out of BPA won't tell you that BPA is in the item. There are 8 billion pounds of this stuff made every year. Where is it going?" Clearly, more work needs to be done to determine how this chemical gets into our bodies. That said, food and beverage cans are one exposure source you can control.

• Go for glass. In 2008, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel heated 10 plastic containers labeled "microwave-safe" in both a microwave and an oven and found that BPA leached from all of them. Use glass or ceramic containers to reheat food, and don't cover the containers with plastic film; use a damp paper towel or glass cover instead.

• Complain. More and more research is finding that "there is no safe dose of BPA," says vom Saal. Animal studies are finding that abnormal reproductive development can occur with as little as 2.4 ppb BPA, but, says vom Saal, "We're talking about parts-per-billion exposure of a chemical that can [alter cells] at levels a thousand times lower than that." Tell your representatives that you want the Food and Drug Administration to listen to the government scientists raising the alarm about BPA, not the lobbyists who stand to lose money from regulation. "What most people in the U.S. don't get is that a major part of determining whether people are told that things are a health hazard or not is due to cost-benefit analysis. The cost to the public isn't taken into account, but the cost to a handful of manufacturers [of BPA] is," says vom Saal. "These are people like GE, Dow Chemical, and Bayer Corporation—powerful lobbying groups—and their profits trump the health of your child in our regulatory process."

Also call the makers of your favorite canned foods, and ask them to come up with BPA-free packaging. The more their customers pressure them to find alternatives, the more resources the companies will put into making the change. And, in fact, it's already been done elsewhere: In 1997, Japanese manufacturers voluntarily stopped using BPA in food cans and other products, says vom Saal. "Within a couple years, reports were coming out in the Japanese and American scientific literature that levels of BPA in Japanese people had dropped over 50 percent," he notes.