BPA Still Lurks in Most Canned Food, Despite Industry Promises

April 1, 2016 Updated: April 10, 2016

Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a very popular chemical in manufacturing. One of the many uses of BPA is to make plastic liners that coat the inside of food cans.

Can liners are used to prevent corrosion and preserve the taste of the food, but the presence of BPA may be causing more serious problems. Several studies link BPA exposure—even in very small amounts—to diseases such as infertility, diabetes, obesity, asthma, attention deficit disorder, as well breast and prostate cancer.

For the last few years, companies in the canned food industry have vowed to remove BPA from their can liner formulas, but a new report, titled “Buyer Beware: Toxic BPA & Regrettable Substitutes in the Linings of Canned Food,” suggests action has been slow.

The report, released March 30, and backed by several non-profits, is based on an independent analysis of nearly 200 types of canned food sold in the market today. Researchers found that two-thirds of the cans tested contained BPA, while the rest contained BPA alternatives that may be just as harmful.

BPA is the poster child for endocrine disrupting chemicals in consumer products.
— Janet Nudelman, co-author of the report and director of program and policy for the Breast Cancer Fund

According to Janet Nudelman, co-author of the report and director of program and policy for the Breast Cancer Fund, the research shows a “shocking lack of transparency” on the part of canned food companies.

“They’re just telling consumers what they want to hear, and there just isn’t enough truth about what we’re hearing,” she said.

One example is Campbell’s—a leader in the canned food industry, grossing over $2.4 billion in sales annually. In 2012, Campbell’s told shareholders that they would start backing away from BPA to line their cans. Four years later, 15 out of 15 Campbell’s cans that were analyzed tested positive for BPA.

“What’s the hold up and where is the disclosure and the transparency that consumers have asked for? What are the benchmarks for which they have made progress in this regard?” said Nudelman.

Just before the report was released, Campbell’s offered up the timeline Nudelman requested. According to a company statement, Campbell’s will have about 75 percent of its soups sold in non-BPA cans by the end of this year. The company’s entire product line is promised to be BPA free by mid-2017.

Other companies such as Del Monte, General Mills, McCormick, and Nestle—which had made similar promises to eliminate BPA—were all found to still have the chemical in their can liners.  Retailer labels such as Dollar General, Trader Joe’s, Meijer’s, Kroger, Target, and Whole Foods also tested positive for BPA.

The report also noted signs of progress. Cans from Amy’s Kitchen, Annie’s Homegrown (recently acquired by General Mills), Hain Celestial Group, Eden, and ConAgra all tested BPA free.

Hard to Replace

BPA has been used in plastics manufacturing since the 1950s. In the 1940s, BPA was used as an estrogen replacement drug known as diethylstilbestrol (DES) to treat morning sickness, menopause, and to prevent miscarriage. In 1971, regulators banned the drug when a long term study revealed that the female offspring of the mothers who used DES developed rare vaginal cancers.  

While regulators and industry leaders insist that BPA is safe for food packaging, evidence suggests that the BPA found in some plastic bottles and can liners may still exert an estrogen-like influence on the food that it touches. Many studies on BPA reveal that the chemical may very well affect significant changes in the endocrine system, even at extremely low doses. 

“BPA is the poster child for endocrine disrupting chemicals in consumer products,” said Nudelman. “It’s so hormonally active that it can literally cross the placenta and impact the developing fetus in parts per billion or parts per trillion. That’s the equivalency of a drop of water in an Olympic sized swimming pool. It has no business being in canned foods because there are hundreds of studies that are showing that it is migrating out of the can and into food which people consume, and having impacts that are biologically active.”

Yet for all BPA’s potential for harm, it has been tricky to find a safer replacement that performs as well. The report found that companies that boast BPA-free packaging now use PVC (polyvinyl chloride)—a known human carcinogen, or styrene—a suspected human carcinogen.  

Campbell’s says that it has tested hundreds of alternatives in its search for a BPA replacement, but the process is taking longer than they anticipated.  The company said that there are several challenges associated with identifying linings that would “ensure the safety of more than 600 different recipes, such as its tomato-based products, which are naturally acidic and can react with some linings over time.”

In the company statement, Campbell’s said it was going to replace BPA with “acrylic and polyester options.”

New Chemicals, Similar Problems

Another BPA alternative getting attention in the marketplace is bisphenol S or BPS. But this chemical cousin of BPA may not be any solution at all.  A study published in the February 1, edition of the journal Endocrinology, found that BPS demonstrates some of the same endocrine disrupting mechanisms as BPA.

“Our study shows that making plastic products with BPA alternatives does not necessarily leave them safer,” said the study’s senior author Nancy Wayne, a reproductive endocrinologist and professor of physiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, in a press release.  “Our findings are frightening—consider it the aquatic version of the canary in the coal mine.”

According to Nudelman, although five national brands have disclosed details of their BPA replacement, they’re still not disclosing the full chemistry of those BPA alternatives or the safety data regarding those alternatives.

Nudelman, who has also authored other national reports investigating BPA, says a big part of the problem is that the FDA’s program for assessing the safety of packaging additives gives too much power to the food industry in declaring chemical safety.

“It shouldn’t be a buyer beware experience for consumers every time they set foot in the canned food aisle,” she said. “They should be able to trust that the canned foods are safe and are not lined with hormonally active chemicals that are threatening the health of their children and family.”

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner