Can you recall ever being in someone’s kitchen where they didn’t have a stack of canned food products in the cupboard? Probably not.
For generations, tinned goods have been prominent on shopping lists around the world due to their long lifespan, variety of food types available, and often cheaper price.
From tinned vegetables and beans in sauce to evaporated milk and oil-packed sardines, it seems hard to imagine life without canned food. And yet these innocuous metal packages could be doing us real harm.
A study presented at the recent 11th Dubai International Food Safety Conference by a government laboratory warned about keeping canned foods for too long and how the tin can dissolve into the food and create health issues.
At the same time, over in the US, the Centre for Environmental Health (CEH) has released a report called Kicking the Can. In it, officials say that 40 per cent of the canned goods they tested earlier this year contained traceable levels of bisphenol A (BPA). The chemical has been linked in past research to birth defects, as well as breast cancer, prostate cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
The percentage of cans containing BPA is down from the 67 per cent recorded in a 2015 test, but CEH officials are still sounding a consumer alarm.
“These companies have known for years that BPA is a serious health threat, yet too many of their food cans still contain this dangerous chemical,” explains Caroline Cox, Research Director at CEH, in the report.
“Americans deserve safe food for their children and families. It is past time for grocery retailers and dollar stores to end this health threat and develop safer alternatives for canned foods.”
Alarming stuff. But is this really an issue we need to take seriously, considering most of us grew up consuming some canned goods?
Stephanie Karl, Clinical Nutritionist at Emirates Integra Medical and Surgical Centre, advises taking a sensible approach to storage to limit any health risks.
“The role of heat releasing BPA chemicals is the main area of scrutiny and therefore cans should be stored for short periods of time — I would say only a few months — at a cool temperature.
“That means above refrigerator temperature of 4 degrees Celsius but below 24 degrees.
“The research on BPA is still not conclusive and will continue to favour industry until forced to make a recommendation based partly on toxicity levels and threat to health and partly driven by consumer concerns.
“A grace period for the industry will be set to ease change in their favour. Some food authorities deem canned food levels of BPA to be safe due to the average intake per day and allowing for storage tips. This relies heavily on the health of the individual, as food safety is geared more for populations and do not consider an individual’s sensitivities, health and personal struggle.”
Concerns over the potential health risks of BPA have led governments and companies to limit the use of the additive in food products and packaging. In 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the chemical from baby bottles and infant food packaging, but insisted the decision was not based on safety concerns. Large food companies have also faced pressure from consumers and advocacy groups to make the switch to BPA-free cans.
Some companies have taken steps to appeal to consumers who are wary of even trace amounts of toxic chemicals in their foods. Companies that use BPA-free lining include Bionaturae, Farmer’s Market and Wild Planet Foods.
Food giants Campbell Soup and Del Monte have begun shifting away from BPA packaging. Campbell Soup said it started using alternative linings made from acrylic and polyester in March this year and was “on track to have 75 per cent of soups in BPA-free cans by the end of the start of 2018”.
Aside from the contentious BPA issue, whether the contents of canned goods are nutritionally valuable for us anyway is an open question.
“Nutritionists have conveniently sat on the fence regarding processed and industrialised foods and regard them as having a place in a healthy diet,” says Karl.
“I would suggest they are convenient and often cheap but cannot replace fresh and raw. I purchase cooked pulses, tomatoes, some fruits and pesto in either glass jars or Tetra Pak and do not hoard them. I tend to think that we should not be waiting for science to catch up with deciding what is going to become a severe health risks, requiring overwhelming evidence but apply our intellect to what is good for us personally and take control of our own health.
“Listen to your own body and give some thought to an alternative choice such as buying frozen foods. The selection is so varied now. I keep bags of frozen pea purée, celeriac root, mango pieces, mushrooms, spinach, as well as dried foods.
“If you do buy canned foods, circulate them quickly — and don’t let them get to the back of the cupboards.”
While canned foods are cheaper and longer-lasting than the fresh variety, the BPA contained in their metal packaging has been linked to breast cancer, prostrate cancer, diabetes and heart disease, as well as birth defects
Away with BPA
It’s not just canned foods — BPA is present in other daily areas of life too. Here are the best ways to keep it out of your body…
Switch to glass containers
Rather than store your leftovers in plastic tubs, use glass or ceramic containers and dishes. Stainless steel containers make great substitutes for plastic lunch bags and takeout clamshells.
Don’t be duped by “BPA-free” plastics
A study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that those seemingly better plastics can contain BPA alternatives that are even more harmful.
They’re often coated with a BPA-based coating that rubs off onto your fingers and whatever else it meets.
Be wary of dental sealants
BPA is the most commonly used dental sealant material, and it’s found in composite fillings used to treat dental cavities. A recent study linked BPA in dental treatments to social problems in children as well, prompting paediatricians to call on dentists to find other materials. However, because BPA is the most durable protective alternative in many dentists’ toolboxes, they’re currently reluctant to use other materials — and considering that the other primary filling alternative is mercury, the alternatives can be just as bad. Preventing cavities and tooth decay is your best bet here: brush regularly and visit your dentist for regular teeth cleaning.