A lot of good foods come in a can—vegetables, soup, tomato products, fish, coconut milk, olives, beans, fruit—not to mention bad ones like soda. A reader recently asked me whether canned food is safe. Here’s what I know.
The main health issue with cans is their BPA lining. BPA stands for bisphenol A, and it is used to protect canned foods from becoming contaminated by the metal in cans, and is also used in many plastic products such as water bottles and in printed receipts you are handed at the store. More than 90 percent of us walk around with it in our bodies.
Is BPA harmful? As I’ve written in BPA and Male Frog Vaginas, the problem with it is that it’s a form of synthetic estrogen and functions as what we call an endocrine disruptor—i.e., a substance that interferes with normal hormone production and distribution within the body. It has been studied quite extensively and linked to miscarriages and early puberty, development in children of abnormal ovaries and reduced sperm count, and breast and prostate cancer, among other things. Smaller bodies metabolize it more slowly, so children are most vulnerable to its impact.
The BPA industry begs to differ. They announce on their website: Based on government research, along with results from other studies, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently answered the question: “Is BPA safe?” with a clear answer—“Yes.” Yet, as trustworthy as the BPA industry and its federal shills undoubtedly are, we have professors of developmental biology such as Frederik vom Saal contending that government and industry recommendations base their conclusions on faulty data. Do they? Forbes magazine isn’t so sure and in 2014 ran a very skeptical piece on vom Saal’s conclusions which, they note, are funded by millions in research grants. Not so squeaky clean.
So where does that leave us hapless consumers? This is just one more area where it’s up to each of us to decide what to worry about health-wise and where to draw the line. Here is how I sometimes approach this issue.
Have you ever heard of Pascal’s wager? Pascal was a 17th century French mathematician and philosopher famous for grappling with the question of whether to believe in God. Here is his calculus or “wager.” If you choose to believe in God and God exists, you’ll gain heaven and avoid hell; if you’re wrong, you lose nothing. If you choose not to believe in God and God exists, you’ll lose heaven and go to hell; if you’re right, you gain nothing. There is more to be gained by believing than there is to be lost by not believing. Hence, the rational agent will believe.
What does this have to do with BPA and, more generally, with our choices about what to believe or disregard with respect to health claims and scares? The way I see it, we have nothing to lose, except perhaps a little time and money, by exercising caution when it comes to manmade chemicals. Since we are exposed to myriad chemicals in multiple areas of our lives, and since scientists have no way of gauging whether this total load is connected with, say, the cancer epidemic—their studies can measure this chemical or that, but not the sum total of chemicals in the sum total of our food supply and environment, which is really what our immune system confronts—we appear to have more to both gain and lose by caring about potential hazards than by not caring.
That’s my logic, and if it’s also yours and if you want to minimize your family’s exposure to BPA, here are a few practical steps.
- Buy organic canned goods. Look for companies such as Eden, that eschew BPA in their packaging.
- Shop at Trader Joe’s. Their website offers a lengthy list of their BPA-free canned goods.
- Refuse cash register receipts unless you really need them. Although they don’t go in your mouth, their chemicals go right into your bloodstream through your pores, which, as I’ve written, are like thousands of tiny mouths.
- Avoid canned goods from poorly regulated countries like China whose cans contain Lord-knows-what, and whose food products contain preservatives and additional chemicals such as herbicides and fungicides that your body certainly can do without.
- Don’t drink canned sodas—as if you needed another reason. Stick to glass bottles for beer as well.
- Never allow foods to be microwaved or heated touching plastic, another major source of BPA. Use glass and wood containers, and if you must cover a bowl that’s being nuked, lay a plain white paper plate over it. (Do you really want melted plastic wrap in your lunch?)
- As long as we’re on the topic of plastic, even BPA-free plastics are worrisome. Chris Kresser’s excellent piece, “How Plastic Food Containers Could Be Making You Fat, Infertile, and Sick,” lays out the issues. We would all do well to switch to glass and stainless steel wherever possible.
You may think I’m nuts and wasting my time avoiding products that may after all be harmless. It’s a free country, so please have at it. However, there is something wrong in the world when twenty- and thirty-somethings are regularly diagnosed with cancer, and when autoimmune diseases are epidemic. I, for one, can’t just stand there feeling helpless; I am compelled to do something, even it turns out that that something was of no use. But my gut tells me otherwise.