BPA: What’s Getting Missed?

Bisphenol-A, or BPA, has long been an incredible example of just how far chatter can run away from science. We even profiled the BPA “debate” as part of our War on (Food) Science series last year. This week is no different, with specious claims about BPA increasing the risk for cancer to obesity, diabetes, and ADD, plus a half-dozen other scary sounding things. It won’t surprise you to hear that those unsubstantiated claims aren't science-based or helpful for our food safety. Bizarrely, this week also brought critiques of substitutes for BPA, which the same critics had long been pushing for, due to the unscientific rumors about BPA itself. Let's dive into both.

 

Should I be worried about BPA, or about BPA substitutes? (Hint: Neither, really)

Dr. Henry Chin, PhD, an independent expert in food safety and food chemistry, demystifies it: “Since BPA doesn’t pose a risk, there is no scientifically valid reason for families to avoid BPA.  All food packaging materials are safe and some food products are available in alternative packaging. There are no packaging materials that are ‘safer’ than BPA.”

BPA? Safe and approved. Substitutes for BPA? Also safe and approved.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves all food packaging materials as “food contact substances,” so all of these substitutes are in the same boat as BPA: The FDA confirms there is “sufficient scientific information to demonstrate that the use of these materials is safe.”

 

canned food

BPA (and Substitutes): What’s the point?

Let’s back up for a minute and talk about why BPA exists. BPA (or substitutes) are used in can liners. Without a liner, metal cans get corroded or punctured.  That means that the food would get contaminated by the metal can and/or outside bacteria that can cause dangerous foodborne illness. It made a big difference in our public health and safety. When was the last time you or someone you know got a bad dose of botulism?

 

But do we KNOW that it’s safe?

In the trace amounts that it’s coming from packaging, yes. The world’s top food safety authorities, including both the U.S. FDA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), have reviewed extensive science around BPA and confirmed over and over again that there is zero threat to human health and safety. Take it from their own words:

“EFSA’s comprehensive re-evaluation of bisphenol A (BPA) exposure and toxicity concludes that BPA poses no health risk to consumers of any age group (including unborn children, infants and adolescents) at current exposure levels.” – European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) 2015 Assessment

“In the fall of 2014, FDA experts from across the agency, specializing in toxicology, analytical chemistry, endocrinology, epidemiology, and other fields, completed a four-year review of more than 300 scientific studies… [and confirmed] BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in foods” – US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

 

What happens if I consume trace amounts of BPA?

The FDA has found that “primates (including humans) of all ages effectively metabolize and excrete BPA much more rapidly and efficiently than rodents.” What does that mean? If you do consume trace amounts of BPA, your body sends it out in your urine without it sticking around or having any impact on you. Just as the FDA and EFSA found, there is no health risk from the trace amounts in some packaging; as EFSA specified, the current amount you could be exposed to is “considerably under” any sort of safety limit.

 

Then where did the scary reputation come from?

When one set of fears was proven false, a new set popped up. Dr. Chin explained that “all of the early claims about BPA have been disproven.  For example, it’s been disproven that BPA, as an endocrine mimicker, is dangerous to sexual development of humans. Now we are seeing claims that exposure to BPA could lead to elevated blood pressure and autism.  While research is warranted to investigate the possibility of real health risks, at some point these endless studies appear to be answers in search for a question.  Or worse, like crying wolf.”

This issue is where we get to BPA as a strong case study of many of the problems in how we hear about science. Dr. Chin notes that media coverage of BPA has “seemingly been limited to stories focused on single experiments with untested and uncorroborated conclusions.  There is little coverage that includes experts who examine the entirety of the evidence.” That problem is certainly not limited to BPA, so take a minute to check out ‘single-study syndrome’ and get used to spotting those red flags. Unfortunately, we don’t think that syndrome is going anywhere.

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