Consumers worldwide are frequently exposed to marketing that products are "BPA-free," with the suggestion that this is a healthier option. This can be confusing and the goal of this article is to shed light on whether BPA-free plastic is really safer.
Is there clinical research proving BPA-free plastic to be less toxic than plastic containing BPA? What alternatives are used in BPA-free plastic? Is BPA itself even proven to be harmful? And how can a consumer reduce their risk?
In this article we’ll answer all of these questions and more as we explain what BPA is, explain why BPA may be harmful, analyze whether BPA-free plastic is really a safer option based on medical studies and give our take on the best ways to reduce risk.
What is BPA?
BPA is short for bisphenol A, and is used as a chemical agent in new plastic formation. It's used to harden the plastic and make it more durable.
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 questionable given the increasing number of research studies suggesting harm from BPA exposure, and given that BPA is not a naturally-occurring compound in food and has no nutritive value
But is BPA actually shown in medical studies to be harmful to human health? We'll analyze that in the next section.
Is BPA Harmful?
The majority of medical research that we've come across 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 2015 medical review found that BPA bio-accumulates and may lead to infertility.
Another medical review published in the Toxicology Reports journal categorized BPA as a reproductive toxin, and summarized research studies suggesting BPA may cause cancer. The cancer link stems from BPA’s 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. Individuals with higher BPA exposure suffered more cardiovascular incidents according to the above-linked meta-study.
Given all of the negative studied responses to BPA exposure, we consider it to be likely 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.
An animated YouTube video published by the "Insider Science" channel has over 100,000 views and documents some of the health risks of plastic chemicals:
But is BPA-free packaging really safer? We'll analyze in the next section.
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 given that BPA may be 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 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 clinical trial published 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 mice may promote obesity in offspring. The chemical interfered with proper cholesterol and blood sugar functioning.
Another animal study found that BPS caused as much reproductive harm as BPA.
From the available research, we will 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.
So if BPA-free plastic is no safer than plastic containing BPA, what's the best way for consumers to reduce risk? We'll analyze in the next section.
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 and many BPA free water bottles contain 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 single-use water bottles. Since water is consumed many times daily, the cumulative exposure to these chemicals will be greater from a water bottle than from a food product like fish that may be consumed a few times weekly.
Here are our plastic-free product recommendations for popular consumer product categories:
Water bottle: Stainless steel water bottle from Hydrapeak (Amazon link)
Cooking pan: Lodge Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet (Amazon link), we recommend Lodge Pan Scrapers to go along with it (Amazon link) because cast iron skillets can be challenging to clean without these scrapers at the outset before the pan is seasoned (which takes around 2 weeks)
Eating bowls: Homestockplus large serving bowls (Amazon link). Made from wheat straw fiber which is entirely toxin-free but has the same durability as plastic.
Coffee maker: Chemex Pour-Over Glass Coffeemaker (Amazon link). Cheap coffee makers expose plastic to boiling hot water which can leach chemicals more than room temperature water. Chemex's product is entirely plastic-free.
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 has other positive health effects which we documented in our sauna benefits article.