Article edited for scientific accuracy by Illuminate Labs Blog Editor Taylor Graber MD
Consumers worldwide are accustomed to “BPA-free” labeling on plastic packaging, but does this really mean anything from a health context? Is BPA-free packaging safer for consumers?
In this article we’ll investigate these questions, and also explain the health risks of BPA exposure. We’ll conclude by providing some alternative packaging materials to look for that are safer for you and better for the environment.
What is BPA?
BPA is short for bisphenol A, and is used as a chemical agent in new plastic formation. It’s also used as an inner lining material in certain products like canned foods to prevent the metal packaging from being damaged. So even a food product like sardines, which is typically sold in metal tins, may be contaminated with BPA.
Unfortunately the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. government agency that regulates food compliance, doesn’t require that BPA be disclosed on package labeling because their stance is that it’s safe at current levels found in foods.
We find this stance to be strange and unscientific given the growing data suggesting harm from BPA exposure, and from a logical perspective given that BPA is not a naturally-occurring compound in food. Often government agencies are lobbied by industry players to avoid stricter compliance measures, which is unfortunate. Consumers should be able to choose whether they want BPA in their food or not.
Is BPA Harmful?
The majority of medical research suggests that BPA exposure is harmful to animals and humans. It tends to be especially harmful to the endocrine system, because it can disrupt estrogen receptor signaling pathways. A medical review found that BPA bio-accumulates and may lead to infertility.
A more recent review categorized BPA as a reproductive toxin, and summarized research studies suggesting BPA may cause cancer. The cancer link stems from BPA’s studied ability to disrupt proper calcium channel signaling, which can cause harmful downstream effects, but more research is needed to conclusively determine this link.
BPA has also been associated in medical studies with increased cardiovascular risk. Patients with higher BPA exposure suffered more cardiovascular incidents.
Given all of the negative studied responses to BPA exposure, we conclude that it’s harmful. There is zero nutritional benefit to BPA exposure and a large potential risk profile that affects multiple organ systems. It’s nearly impossible to avoid BPA exposure entirely in the modern world, but we recommend limiting its exposure as much as possible.
We find it unacceptable that the FDA believes BPA is safe in light of the data.
Is BPA-Free Packaging Safer?
With more and more consumers becoming aware of the health risks of BPA exposure, many manufacturers and food brands have begun advertising “BPA-free” on their labels. At first consideration, this appears to be beneficial because we know BPA is likely harmful.
But what most consumers aren’t considering is what BPA is being replaced with, and the comparative risk.
Manufacturers of a canned fish product, for example, aren’t simply removing BPA and allowing their packaging to erode. They’re simply using a different plasticizing chemical in BPA’s place; usually one with less name recognition.
Preliminary medical research finds that these BPA replacement chemicals are often no safer than BPA, and can even be more dangerous. A study in the Environmental Health journal found BPA-free packaging to have similar levels of estrogenic activity to packaging with BPA.
Bisphenol S (BPS) is one of the most common BPA alternatives, and its use allows manufacturers to list “BPA-free” on their label. Medical studies show it may be even more harmful than BPA.
An animal study found that BPS exposure in parents may promote obesity in offspring. The chemical interfered with proper cholesterol and blood sugar functioning, and this disruptive effect had negative consequences on obesity in offspring.
Another animal study found that BPS caused as much reproductive harm as BPA.
From the available research, we can conclude that BPA-free packaging isn’t necessarily any safer than packaging with BPA. Because “BPA-free” is a broad term encompassing many chemicals, it doesn’t allow consumers to make an informed decision.
Much like the use of “natural flavorings” in food products, “BPA-free” is just a catch-all term that allows manufacturers to hide the actual chemicals they’re using. We recommend that consumers reach out to "BPA-free" product manufacturers to ask what chemical(s) were used in place of BPA.
Ultimately we would like to see the FDA require U.S. manufacturers to list potentially hazardous chemicals on their product label, but we don’t foresee this coming anytime soon.
How Can I Reduce My Risk?
If you’ve read to this point, you’re probably curious about how you can reduce your risk of exposure to these potentially dangerous chemicals. The simplest way is to limit exposure to plastic of any type as much as possible. Eating from ceramic kitchenware and drinking out of glass is safer than eating and drinking from plastic. Limiting consumption of single-use plastic bottled water is beneficial both for your health and for the environment.
Many reusable water bottles contain BPA or BPA-mimicking chemicals like BPS. We recommend stainless steel water bottles. Ask your manufacturer if any chemicals are used in the inner lining.
Buying fresh or frozen fish will be safer than buying canned fish due to the lining material, but we don’t find this to be as big of a concern as estrogenic chemicals in water bottles. Since water is consumed many times daily, the cumulative exposure to these chemicals would be greater from a water bottle than from a food product like fish that may be consumed a few times weekly.
Sweating is a legitimate way to reduce BPA bioaccumulation. A fascinating medical study found that sweating releases BPA through the skin and reduces levels of the toxin in the body. Vigorous exercise is a great way to induce sweating, but sauna use may be a more therapeutic measure since it increases sweating beyond levels from exercise. Sauna use also has other health benefits which we documented in the linked article.
BPA-free is a meaningless and potentially deceptive designation used by manufacturers to falsely increase consumer confidence in the safety level of products.
BPA is harmful to human health but so are many chemicals used as BPA substitutes like BPS.
We recommend that consumers reduce plastic exposure as much as possible, as this is the clearest way to reduce BPA and plasticizing chemical exposure. Supporting businesses with non-toxic packaging will help the plastic alternatives industry grow and make for a better world.
For those who can’t avoid BPA exposure, like consumers in a region with very poor water quality who are forced to use single-use plastic bottled water for their daily needs, we recommend daily sweating through exercise as a healthy and natural way to reduce bioaccumulation of BPA.