Friday, April 1, 2011

Kick the can and eat fresh food

If you think that canned and packaged food isn't so bad for you, think again.

A study by the Breast Cancer Fund and the Silent Spring Institute published this week in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that food packaging is a major source of hormone-disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and plastic softener DEHP, and that a fresh food diet can reduce levels of these chemicals by half in just three days.

When 20 study participants ate food that had not been canned or packaged in plastic over three days, their urine contained two-thirds less BPA and about 55% less DEHP than when they were eating their usual diet which included packaged foods. When they returned to their normal eating habits, their levels of BPA and the DEHP compound rose significantly.

BPA is used to harden plastics. It is also found in the epoxy resin linings of food and soft drink containers and in the ink on most types of paper cash register receipts. DEHP is used to soften plastics and can be found in plastic food wrap.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 93% of Americans have detectable levels of BPA in their bodies. This is problematic because some studies have linked BPA and phthalates such as DEHP to infertility, heart disease and cancer. One study found that even at weak concentrations BPA can block the effects of several commonly used chemotherapy agents on breast cancer cells.

There is much debate over the levels at which these chemicals are dangerous. The American Chemistry Council was quick to point out yesterday that "typical consumer exposure to BPA and DEHP, from all sources, is up to 1,000 times lower than government-established safe exposure levels."

However, the US government doesn't seem quite so confident about its "safe exposure levels" for BPA anymore. In January 2010, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which had for years insisted that BPA was safe, expressed "concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children." Two months later, the Environmental Protection Agency added the compound as a "chemical of concern" because of its possible harmful effects on the environment.

A small note of caution: although the BPA investigation above was peer-reviewed, it is a small study and was conducted by groups that are known to be critical about BPA and other chemicals. However, I can think of many reasons besides BPA and phthalate exposure why we should avoid canned and packaged foods.

The advantages of fresh over packaged food are manifold. In addition to being free from plastics, it is generally: -
  • Cheaper (especially when you shop at farmers' markets, farm shops or through CSA schemes),
  • Healthier (packaged food is often processed, which implies a decline in nutrients compared to fresh equivalents and often involves the addition of unhealthy fats, sugars and starch, excess salt, preservatives, flavorings, fillers, etc.),
  • Environment-friendlier, both through the production and the disposal of packaging (all the waste you generate when preparing fresh vegetables, fruit, fish or meat is biodegradable), and
  • Tastier (well, at least for those of us who remember the flavor of fresh, additive-free food...).
Silent Spring suggests some practical ways of cutting down exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. In Six Simple Steps to avoid BPA and Phthalates in Food they recommend --
  • Eating fresh or frozen rather than canned food as much as possible
  • Eating fresh meals at home (they cite studies showing that people who eat more meals prepared outside the home have higher levels of BPA)
  • Storing food and drinks in glass or stainless steel containers rather than plastic containers - especially if they are fatty or acidic
  • Not microwaving food in plastic containers (warmer temperatures increase the rate of chemicals leaching into food and drinks) but using heat resistant glass or ceramic containers instead
  • Brewing coffee using a French press rather than automatic coffee makers, which may have BPA and phthalates in their plastic containers and tubing
For the rare occasions when canned food is the best option (I confess to eating canned sardines occasionally - they're so tasty and convenient!), it is good to know that some US food manufacturers are moving towards making cans without BPA-containing resins. They include Vital Choice, Oregon's Choice and Eden foods. (Click here for a fuller list.)

In Zest for Life I write extensively about the benefits of eating fresh, seasonal, locally grown, home-cooked food while avoiding processed, packaged food. Even "healthy" foods such as sardines or tomatoes are even healthier when fresh. While this may take some adjustments at first, the pay-back in terms of health and mealtime satisfaction can be tremendous!