Chinese researchers have just given you one more reason to ditch canned soup for good: A controversial chemical used in canned-good linings, as well as in certain types of plastics and the coatings for cash-register receipts, has been associated with higher rates of brain cancer.
The study, published in the International Journal of Clinical Oncology, compared levels of bisphenol A (BPA) to rates of meningioma, a type of cancer that grows in the membrane that surrounds your brain and spinal cord, in about 500 adults who were being treated at a clinic in China. About half of those people had been diagnosed with meningioma, while the other half had not.
The researchers found that the adults with higher levels of BPA in their urine were more likely to have that particular form of brain cancer than those whose levels were lower. The people with the highest concentrations of BPA were 1.4 to 1.6 times more likely to have the cancer than people with the lowest levels. That was even after the researchers controlled for things like weight, family history, and whether the person had been on hormone replacement therapy.
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BPA is a hormone disruptor, meaning that it interferes with the way your body produces and regulates estrogen, testosterone, and other hormones, such as insulin, which is why past studies have linked it to breast and prostate cancers and to metabolic diseases like diabetes. Meningioma is a hormonal cancer influenced by high levels of female hormones, which is one reason the cancer is more often seen in women.
Although this study doesn't show that BPA causes meningioma, it does add to a growing body of research linking the chemical to serious health issues. In addition to those listed above, BPA has been linked to heart disease and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
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Canned-food manufacturers are beginning to recognize that the public doesn't want this toxic chemical in its canned goods and are starting to find alternatives, even though the Food and Drug Administration has repeatedly refused to ban BPA from food packaging. But the alternatives? Just more cancer-causers, says Margie Kelly of Healthy Child Healthy World, a nonprofit devoted to protecting children from toxic chemicals. "It's just not acceptable to move from BPA to another toxic chemical that just doesn't have the same bad PR," she says.
According to the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, a trade group of can manufacturers, the most common replacement for BPA right now is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), otherwise known as vinyl, the same material used to make your bathroom shower curtain. PVC contains hormone-disrupting chemicals of its own, and it's been linked to breast and liver cancers; the Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a known human carcinogen.
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Another alternative being studied is bisphenol S, or BPS, which is similar in structure to BPA and just as likely to interfere with your hormones.
And both chemicals are being used in cans advertised as "BPA free." "'BPA free' doesn't necessarily mean safe, any more than 'natural' means anything," says Kelly.
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Kelly's group led a campaign to get Campbell Soup to remove BPA from its cans, and after they collected 20,000 signatures on a petition, the company ultimately announced that it would. Similarly, Kroger, the country's largest grocery store chain, announced that it would require canned-food manufacturers selling products in its stores to phase out BPA, and other large agribusinesses, including ConAgra, General Mills, and Heinz, have all announced that they're either phasing out BPA or researching alternatives for use in their cans. But no one is saying what they'll use instead, whether it will be cancer-causing vinyl, hormone-disrupting BPS, or yet another unknown, untested chemical.
"No one fought, signed petitions, did research on the Internet only to have cans be lined with something that's equally dangerous," Kelly says.
Her group has now partnered with the nonprofit Breast Cancer Fund in a new campaign called "Cans Not Cancer" that's pressuring canned-food companies to be more transparent about the alternatives in use. Currently, the nonprofits are pressuring Campbell Soup to disclose what's being used in its cans. You can sign the petition here.
If You Can't Beat 'Em, Avoid 'Em
According to the Breast Cancer Fund, food packaging remains our largest exposure source to BPA, and they've published tips on the best ways to avoid the toxic chemical (and any of its toxic replacements). Here are the group's suggestions:
• Canned beans: Eden Foods is the only company using a nontoxic BPA alternative in its cans, made from vegetable oil. If you can't find that brand, check the freezer section for frozen cooked beans, or buy dried.
• Fruits: Replace your canned fruit with fresh or dried, and you'll not only avoid BPA, but also the added sugar and calories in canned fruit.
• Ravioli, pasta with meatballs, and other canned meals: These all-in-one meals have some of the highest levels of BPA of any canned foods, the Fund says. Cooking from scratch is the easiest way to avoid these, but if you're in a pinch, buy a frozen meal instead. Just keep an eye out for the sky-high sodium levels in some frozen dinners, and remove them from their plastic packaging first. It can contain BPA, as well.
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• Restaurant meals: Don't be afraid to ask your server if the restaurant uses canned ingredients in the meal you order. Generally speaking, many restaurants do use canned foods, so it might be tough to completely avoid BPA in your restaurant meal.
• Soups: Look for soups in Tetra Pak containers—those cartons of soup generally reserved for broths and gourmet foods. The containers are made from layers of cardboard, aluminum, and PET plastic, which is BPA free. These aren't always recyclable, so encourage your municipal recycling program to include them if it doesn't already.
• Vegetables: Vegetables have some of the highest levels of BPA of any canned foods, according to product tests. Opt for frozen or fresh, particularly when your local farmer's markets are brimming over. Canned tomatoes can now be found in Tetra Paks, as well, but often those options aren't organic. Buy huge amounts of organic tomatoes at your farmer's market and learn how to can them yourself in glass jars.