The Plastic Problem: Is “BPA-Free” Good Enough?

Find out what this hormone disruptor was replaced with.

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When the news came out that BPA—a common chemical in food containers—was bad for health, many companies raced to release products in BPA-free containers. It was considered the solution to the latest health concern, but unfortunately, “BPA-free” may not be anything to brag about.

Let’s back up: BPA stands for bisphenol A. It’s a chemical in polycarbonate plastics, such as in plastic bottles. It’s also used in epoxy resins, which are used to line things like aluminum cans, pipes, and bottle tops, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

BPA started making headlines when researchers found that it was a hormone disruptor, meaning it affected the hormonal processes of humans. The BPA leached into food and water, allowing it to enter the human digestive system and bloodstream. 

In fact, a survey in 2004 by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention found detectable levels of BPA in a whopping 93 percent of urine samples from over 2,500 participants.

Hormone disruptors like BPA can have numerous effects on human health. Most notably, it appears to have the biggest impact on babies and developing fetuses, increasing their risk of reproductive problems, certain types of cancers, and obesity.

The Problem with “BPA-Free”

Your can of beans may say “BPA-free,” but what it doesn’t tell you is that the company merely swapped in a different chemical. And just like what happened with BPA, these companies used substitute chemicals without fully testing their safety.

One of the most common substitutes for BPA is BPS: bisphenol S. Newer studies reveal that BPS may be just as risky to hormones and health—if not more risky—as its predecessor. In other words, “BPA-free” may not be the pure and clean claim it wants to be.

For example, mice exposed to low doses of BPS negatively affected their maternal care, according to the Environmental Working Group. The baby mice were less likely to initiate nursing, and the mothers spent more time trying to nurse due to reduced functioning of their mammary glands. The babies also had stunted growth and development.

What Do Experts Recommend?

It might feel like a hopeless and endless problem, but there is one safe alternative: buying whole foods that don’t come in packages. For example, buying dried beans instead of canned beans can help you avoid BPA—and whatever substitute chemical the company might be using. (Bonus: You’ll save money, too.)

Another option is buying foods and beverages that come in glass instead of plastic. Due to the numerous concerns of plastic (for both health and the environment), more and more companies are turning to glass, which do not leach chemicals into your food or drinks. Of course, products in glass packaging tend to cost a few extra dimes.

As for water in plastic water bottles, just opt for a water filter instead. You’ll save money, and the water quality is probably better, too. (Learn more about bottled water vs. tap water here.)

Finally, cut yourself some slack. While BPA, BPS, and similar chemicals are a concern, you have to weigh the pros and cons with your budget. Eating canned beans is likely better than eating no beans at all. Here are more tips for healthy eating on a budget.