Debate over the safety of BPA has raged on for decades, with little-to-no progress regarding what level is fit for human consumption, if any. Different countries have taken individual approaches to the situation, as have brands and producers. What does your stance say about your brand? And could it be set to change? Tom Smart examines the muddy waters of BPA and its alternatives.
BPA or bisphenol A, is an industrial chemical that has been widely used since the 1950s to synthesise a whole family of durable plastics known as polycarbonates. These products are now found almost everywhere but are in highest concentration in the kitchen; from drinks bottles and food containers to can coatings and a whole host of other consumer goods.
It’s safety as a part of the food chain has been questioned by scientists, policy-makers, producers and the general public for many years, leading to a plethora of contrasting (and sometimes suspiciously-funded) reports, all of which have muddied the BPA debate to the point of helpless confusion.
The US have set up an entire programme, aptly named CLARITY-BPA to investigate. Their imminent conclusions are likely due to be met with scepticism due to accusations of flawed methodology and biased work. In Europe BPA has been classified as a ‘substance of very high concern’ leading to a ban in certain products (namely baby bottles and other early-years products), while the French went one step further and banned the use of BPA entirely in food-contact materials in 2015. Recently the EU lowered the legal limit in certain industries due to increasing pressure from scientific and political circles. It seems most are beginning to respond.
Yet despite this unwanted attention use of BPA has not slowed down; it is still one of the most commonly manufactured chemicals in the world. It’s ability to leach into the food chain has led to some eye-opening scientific research: the University of Exeter found traces of BPA in the urine of the “vast majority” of the teenagers it sampled, and it has been described as “extremely environmentally prevalent”in a number of research papers.
On the back of this alongside growing public outrage over a perceived lack of action many producers in the natural products industry have begun migrating to ‘BPA free’ or ‘BPA not intended’ packaging. But research into what exactly these labels mean can be difficult. For a start ‘BPA free’ is not an official and/or registered mark; it was introduced by leading plastic producers in response to the health scandal at the start of the last decade and does not appear to have any form of regulation in a way that products certified as ‘organic’ or ‘vegan’ do. Perhaps more concerningly is that in the majority of cases where BPA is excluded a replacement is added so as not to alter the quality of the product, namely structurally similar compounds such as bisphenol S (BPS) and bisphenol F (BPF).
Image having a concern about your green grapes and replacing them with red ones. Red ones you know very little about. Because the issue with BPS, BPF and all the other BPs that have been used to replace BPA over the years is that very little was known about their effects on the body when they were first introduced. As it turns out they are almost identical, in particular as an endocrine disruptor. Therefore your BPA-free packaging could be just as big an issue as the original and mainstream media outlets are beginning to pick up on this.
BPA-NI (not intended) labels are offering little in the way of comfort to the consumer, and increased education is likely to render it redundant in our opinion. BPA-NI simply means that the chemical was not intentionally added, but that it could still be there (and probably is). It implies that it is too hard to eradicate altogether, but the producer feels they should mention they have tried. Imagine applying that same logic to nuts (although this writer appreciates the increased gravitas of this subject matter); telling a consumer that you have tried not to add them, but they could still be there. I severely doubt they would be in a hurry to make a purchase, and it certainly wouldn’t be a message you would consider advertising on the front of your packaging.
How then can consumer-conscious natural brands help their customers avoid BPA? Well, with great difficulty. One major study showed that due to the ubiquitous status of BPA-containing materials in society that ‘it was possible to moderate BPA exposure by diet in a real-world setting’. The study was small in sample size however, and despite its results it does not mean producers have carte-blanche to ignore the whole situation.
Plastics labelled with recycling marks three or seven will almost certainly contain large amounts of BPA or similar, so alternatives could be sought. More could be done to advise consumers on the safest way to handle plastic products, i.e. avoiding heat in the microwave or dishwasher as it causes the plastic to break down quicker, speeding up the leaching process.
But in our humble opinion, the easiest way (and it isn’t very easy at all) to position yourself outside of the BPA debate is to abandon any products that could potentially contain BPA.
Do you really need to be using plastic or coated cans at all? With the world in so much turmoil regarding the sustainability of our packaging and the impact of plastics there has been a lot of focus on bio-degradable, re-usable and recyclable packaging in the natural products industry, as reported in our N.O.P.E. Europe report. There are options, but they may come at a price.
For many an obvious alternative is glass, mainly because it is one of few materials that can be indefinitely recycled. Glass does come with issues however; primarily the increased weight leading to a greater transport footprint, a fact Coca-cola of all people warned of earlier this year. Read into that what you will.
Whatever your opinion the great BPA debate looks set to roll on. Consumers are growing more conscious, not only with regards to this now-infamous chemical but also plastics in general. BPA-free packaging may work for your brand at present, but we believe it is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. If you aren’t already thinking long-term perhaps it is time. Getting ahead of the trend now could speak volumes in the future.