Let's get right to the point, while BPA-free is a great step forward and shows how customers can call for big commercial and policy change, BPA-free isn't always quite what it seems.
If you want a little refresher about what BPA is and how it can affect your health, read our article about what BPA is first.
Now that you're all refreshed, we can explain why plastic bottles and containers marked BPA-free, while an improvement, might not mean you are completely in the clear. BPA is an acronym that stands for bisphenol A. This was really common in products because it works well to harden plastic and create a lining that keep food from affecting and eroding metal in canned goods. But, there are hundreds of different types of bisphenols. Bisphenol A was the most popular, but once society realized how much it can affect health, people started to call for a change. (Side note: this is awesome, we love it, and personally think everyone should do this more often. Tell brands what you do and don't want, they do listen.)
As consumers started voicing their concerns, companies started to listen and make a switch. The hiccup here was that they started replacing BPA (which we learned was bad) with similar chemicals like BPS and BPF (which we didn't know much about). These swaps are often called "regrettable replacements" by scientists. That's because we take out something known to be bad, replace it with something similar that we don't really know anything about, then learn later that they are bad in their own right.
What matters is that these "new" chemicals are more similar than we think. But, because they are "new and different" chemicals, it's technically not wrong or lying when a brand says their products are BPA-free. They don't have BPA in them, that's true, but they also aren't free of bisphenols or as Dr. Laura Vandenberg explains, estrogenic chemicals.
"The problem was never with BPA. It's not that it's a chemical that looks funny to me, it's that it's estrogenic. So, replacing it with something else that is estrogenic just so that [a company] can say 'yay, no more BPA,' was never the point. At least not for me. I am interested in estrogens, and that's where we missed the mark," says Dr. Vandenberg, Assistant Professor and Graduate Program Director at the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst.
While BPA-free is a step in the right direction, what we really want is products that are bisphenol and estrogen-mimicking chemicals free.
"I worked very hard to help consumer and health advocates know about BPA. But maybe when we educated people about BPA we didn't do it in the right way. Because, in the end, consumers have asked for BPA-free products but they didn't ask strongly enough for estrogen free products. If we, collectively as a society, had asked for estrogen free products, maybe we wouldn't be dealing with BPA-free products that are instead made with BPS and other estrogenic bisphenols," Dr. Vandenberg says.
To avoid accidentally getting BPA-free products that are hiding estrogenic replacements, we recommend trying to reduce the amount of plastic in your life, especially in items that come in contact with food and drinks. When it comes to water bottles and baby bottles, look for glass or stainless steel. Instead of keeping leftovers in plastic containers, try for glass, stainless steel, or silicone options (see our food storage roundup for inspiration). If you are still looking for the right one, start keeping leftovers on ceramic plates or in bowls covered with aluminum foil or cloth and wax wraps. Look for frozen foods instead of canned foods. While frozen fruits and vegetables often come in plastic, we explain why it's better over here. There are lots of other easy swaps you can make, and we talk about a bunch of them throughout the site.