You probably already guessed by the title…
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 on BPA first.
Now that you're all caught up, we can explain why products labeled BPA-free, while maybe an improvement, might still contain harmful chemicals. BPA is an acronym that stands for bisphenol A. BPA is a synthetic chemical that is added to harden plastics and is also used in can linings to keep food from eroding metal in canned goods. But, there are hundreds of different types of bisphenols besides just BPA. Bisphenol A was once the most widely used in everyday products like baby bottles and canned soups, but as scientists began to identify harmful health effects from BPA exposure, a chorus of calls emerged, demanding that companies remove BPA from these products. (Side note: this is awesome, tell brands what you do and don't want, and they do listen.)
As consumers started voicing their concerns, companies started to listen and switched away from BPA. Unfortunately, companies replaced BPA with similar chemicals like bisphenol S and bisphenol F, whose health effects weren’t as well-studied). These swaps are often called "regrettable replacements" by scientists. That's because a chemical known to be bad is taken out only to be replaced with something chemically-similar that we don’t often know much about.
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 other 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 not only free of all bisphenols, but also of any estrogen-mimicking chemicals.
"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.