Sept. 21, 2011 -- Cans of soup marketed for kids may have a potentially dangerous chemical that's not found on any food ingredient label.
A new report shows some canned soups and meals marketed to children contain the chemical bisphenol A (BPA). All of the products tested positive for the chemical, and Campbell's Disney Princess and Toy Story soups contained the highest levels.
A spokesman for Campbell's says regulatory agencies say the amount of BPA in canned foods doesn't pose a threat to health.
The average level of BPA in the 12 items tested was 49 ppb (parts per billion) and ranged from 10 to 148 ppb. The Environmental Protection Agency's estimate of safe exposure level is 50 ppb per day.
"One serving might be a concern, but a combination of repeated and re-exposure to BPA from cans marketed to kids is a bigger concern," says Connie Engel, PhD, science education coordinator at the Breast Cancer Fund, which conducted the study.
"The combination of these foods with other foods like canned fruits, juices, or vegetables would add up to levels of BPA exposure associated with breast cancer, prostate cancer, infertility in girls, and ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]," says Engel.
What Is BPA?
BPA is a controversial chemical that is found in many hard plastics as well as in the linings of metal food cans. The lining forms a barrier between the metal and the food to help prevent contamination with bacteria that may cause illness.
The amount of BPA that leaches into canned foods may vary due to a number of factors, including how salty, fatty, or acidic the food is. How long the food has been canned or exposed to heat or UV light is also a factor.
BPA is known to mimic the hormone estrogen in the body and may interfere with the body's endocrine system. Recent studies have linked BPA exposure to breast and prostate cancer in animals and obesity, thyroid problems, reproductive abnormalities, and neurologic disorders in humans.
In 2008, the FDA said current research supports the safety of low levels of human exposure to BPA. But in 2010 the agency revised its stance to say recent studies suggest there may be some uncertainty about the health risks of BPA.
BPA in Canned Food
In the report, researchers sent two cans each of six different canned meal products marketed to children to an independent testing laboratory for analysis.
The results showed all of the products contained detectable levels of BPA. Different samples of the same product varied by as much as 68 ppb.
The highest BPA levels were found in two Campbell's products:
- Disney Princess Cool Shapes Shaped Pasta with Chicken in Chicken Broth: levels ranging from 80-148 ppb
- Toy Story Fun Shapes, Shaped Pasta with Chicken in Chicken Broth: levels of 71-90 ppb
The lowest BPA levels were found in another Campbell's product, SpaghettiOs with Meatballs, with levels of 10-16 ppb.
Other products tested and their BPA levels were:
- Earth's Best Organic Elmo Noodlemania Soup, USDA Organic: 34-42 ppb
- Annie's Homegrown Cheesy Ravioli, USDA Organic: 27-34 ppb
- Chef Boyardee Whole Grain Pasta, Mini ABC's & 123's with Meatballs: 19-21 ppb
Researchers say these findings are consistent with previous analyses of BPA levels in canned foods. A March 2011 review of BPA levels in canned foods by the same group found soups averaged 69 ppb and meals averaged 36 ppb.
Campbell Soup Company spokesman Anthony Sanzio says the quality and safety of their products is their top priority.
"BPA is used by the entire industry as a can lining to protect the food because it is approved for that use," says Sanzio. "We are talking about parts per billion here. These are very small, minute amounts that regulatory bodies have said don't pose a threat to human health."
"We are confident in what the science tells us, but that does not mean that we don't understand the concerns that consumers have expressed," says Sanzio.
BPA Debate Continues
There's no argument that BPA is everywhere: in the water, air, ground, and food we eat. But the issue is whether human exposure to BPA at the levels currently found in the food supply is responsible for negative health effects down the road.
Some researchers say the Environmental Protection Agency's current safe BPA exposure limit is too high. They argue that studies have shown adverse effects at much lower levels of exposure.
On the other side of the debate, industry groups say recent studies call into question previous studies that have used spot testing of blood or urine as an indicator of potential BPA health risks.
"There has been a lot of new science that has come out not necessarily looking at the levels of BPA in canned foods, but what is happening when BPA enters the body. I think that is of more concern," says John Rost, PhD, chairman of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance. "People may begin to see that BPA is not dangerous or harmful and that the benefits of using it far outweigh the media uproar."
For example, a study in this month's Journal of Toxicological Sciences suggests that BPA in the food supply may not be responsible for negative health effects because it is quickly metabolized and doesn't stay in the body for long.
"Your body is able to excrete it without it ever entering the bloodstream in a toxic form," says Rost.
But experts say metabolism rates vary greatly from person to person and cite studies that have linked very low BPA levels in the blood or urine to developmental, reproductive, or metabolic disorders in animals.
"We know that people metabolize BPA quickly, but we have daily contact with it and it is a very potent, toxic chemical in laboratory settings," says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C. "We want people's exposure to be as low as possible."
"The study was only looking at adults and there is long-standing evidence that children, while they are also able to metabolize BPA, they do it more slowly or not as completely," says Lunder.
How to Reduce BPA Exposure
Together with the National Toxicology Program, the FDA is carrying out in-depth studies to assess the health risks of BPA exposure in humans.
Until those results are in, the FDA is taking reasonable steps to reduce human exposure to BPA in the food supply, including supporting efforts to replace BPA or minimize BPA levels in food can linings.
Rost says the canning industry is investigating alternatives to BPA-based epoxy liners. But they are a long way from finding a replacement that matches its 30-year track record in preventing food-borne illness in packaged foods.
While the jury may still be out on the potential health effects of BPA, experts say there are simple steps to reduce BPA exposure. They include:
- Choose fresh food over canned whenever possible.
- If fresh is not an option, seek frozen foods or those packed in Tetra Paks, which look like big juice boxes. Remove frozen foods from plastic bags or trays before heating.
- Microwave foods in ceramic or glass containers rather than plastic.