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Is “BPA-Free” Really BPA-Free?

Bisphenol A (BPA) likely resides in each of our homes, predominantly our kitchens. From water bottles to canned goods, from paper napkins to paper towels, BPA is littered throughout the pantries. BPA is a synthetic monomer (a molecule that can bond to other identical molecules, forming a polymer—a long chain of monomers).  It is utilized in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins (Figure 1).

The production of BPA is estimated at 3.8 million tons worldwide, and is expected to rise because of the marked demand for polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins from China (Huang et al., 2012). 

BPA is ubiquitous in our environment and in the human body, as substantiated by the finding that over 90% of people (including newborns, children, and adults) have detectable levels of BPA present in their urine (Vandenberg et al., 2010), the chief route of excretion (Völkel et al., 2002).  It is found in several bodily fluids and tissues, including blood, urine, saliva, adipose (or fat), placental tissue, and breast milk (Vandenberg et al., 2010; Geens, Neels, & Covaci, 2012). 

Originally synthesized for the production of frequently used items, the intent of BPA was to make better, more durable products, and ultimately, make our lives easier. We were never meant to consume it, which is the primary route of exposure in humans. Ingestion of BPA occurs when food has been stored or reheated in BPA-lined containers.  Recent scientific literature suggests there is exposure from drinking water, dental sealants, thermal paper, and inhalation of household dust particles (i.e. like the dust from paper plates and paper towels lined with BPA) (Vandenberg et al., 2007; Rudel et al., 2011; Geens et al., 2012; Hormann et al., 2014; Porras, Heinälä, & Santonen, 2014).

Why is there a push to rid food products of BPA? 

BPA is an endocrine-disrupting chemical. Apart from traditional risk factors (i.e. family history, sedentary lifestyle, and a standard American diet), exposure to environmental toxicants like endocrine-disrupting chemicals will interfere with normal hormonal function (Magliano & Lyons, 2013). 

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals like BPA are important factors in our global  obesity and diabetes epidemic (Longnecker & Daniels, 2001; Vom Saal et al., 2007; Elobeid & Allison, 2008; Thayer et al., 2012). 

In a systematic review of a large body of cross-sectional studies showed people with higher urinary BPA concentrations are more likely to gain excess weight, have diabetes, and high blood pressure vs. those with lower BPA concentrations (Rancière et al., 2015).  

Another cross-sectional study by Adesman & Rosen (2017) showed 9.5 million formula-fed children exposed to BPA in formula cans or baby bottles had a 5-fold increased odds of developing attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) compared to breastfed infants. Five years later, this same study showed that when BPA linings were used less often, there was no  association between being fed formula cans and developing ADHD. 

Increasing evidence is mounting that BPA is a harmful polymer.  Because of the public pressure to remove BPA from food-containing products, Kroger’s grocery chain, for example, has made a commitment to eliminate BPA from their products, claiming, “by 2017, we had converted 92% of applicable Our Brands canned goods to Non-BPA liners,” which includes their organic brand. 

Liao & Kannan (2011) question whether or not we should consume food cooked on BPA paper products, as BPA migration into food during cooking greatly accelerates with heat.

If my can is “BPA-free,” then what chemical compound is replacing it and is that safer? 

This is actually a lot tougher to find out than I had originally thought. The answers aren’t always clear. In checking out Native Forest brand (parent company Edward & Sons), I found a letter to their customers dated January 2017. They state their products meet FDA regulations and that random inventory was tested and found to be BPA-free. 

Yet, no mention of what replaced BPA was documented. 

It appears Tetra Pak may be an option for a separate type of packaging, as well as bisphenol S (BPS). BPS is also found in paper from receipts—receipts you may get at the grocery store itemizing your BPA-containing canned goods. Thayer et al. (2016) conducted a small study and found BPS compounds in the urine of cashiers. This is not surprising considering how easily BPA appears to be absorbed. After all, bisphenols are structurally similar to one another, so absorption likely occurs byway of similar processes (Figure 2).

In sum, “BPA-free” is not synonymous with bisphenol-free. Other bisphenols are often substituted for BPA, which may or may not act in a similar way and may or may not be less harmful. While Tetra pak is an alternative option, much less is known about it, and it could end up being worse. We just don’t have the research yet.

Doctor’s advice? 

Shop for fresh produce as the primary item you purchase at the grocery store.  Limit purchasing packaged foods. You will make great strides for your health in the long run.


Dr. Bhandari and the Advanced Health Team Are Here to Support Your Health.

Our expert team of integrative holistic practitioners work with patients suffering from chronic health concern.  We help our patients reverse disease by better understanding how the body optimally functions and providing personalized treatment plan.  To learn more and book an appointment, contact Advanced Health or call 1-415-506-9393.


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Dr. Payal Bhandari Dr. Payal Bhandari M.D. is a leading practitioner of integrative and functional medicine in San Francisco.

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