Should we avoid products with BPA?

Dear EarthTalk: A recent study showed that Bisphenol A (BPA) was hardly the human health risk researchers once believed it to be. Should I still try to avoid products that may contain it? – Carolyn Danes, Waukesha, WI

Answer: Some 93 percent of us carry traces of the synthetic compound Bisphenol A (BPA) in our bloodstreams, so it’s no wonder that public health advocates are concerned about its potential effects. Developed in the 1950s to strengthen plastics and epoxy resins, BPA is today used in a wide range of products, including many plastic food and drink containers, the lining of most cans, some paper products, and dental sealants.

But with widespread use of BPA has come increased scrutiny regarding its potential impact on human health. When ingested, BPA mimics naturally occurring human hormones and thus can potentially interfere with the body’s endocrine and reproductive workings. According to the nonprofit Breast Cancer Fund, previous research has linked BPA exposure to with increased risk for cardiovascular disease, miscarriages, decreased birth weight at term, breast and prostate cancer, reproductive and sexual dysfunctions, altered immune system activity, metabolic problems and diabetes in adults, and cognitive and behavioral development in young children. These concerns have led the European Union, Canada-and more recently the U.S.-to ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and other items geared toward babies and children.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) maintains that typical low-level BPA exposure does not pose any health risk. A February 2014 study by FDA researchers found that low doses of the compound did not affect the health of rats over a 90-day study period. While study rats exposed to higher doses of BPA had lower body weights, abnormal female reproductive development and altered hormone levels, there were no such effects in rats exposed to lower doses more akin to what humans experience.

But critics point out some flaws in that study which call its conclusions into question. For one, a control group of rats that was supposed to remain unexposed to BPA somehow had levels of the compound in their blood equivalent to the lowest-dose study population. FDA researchers maintain that this contamination of the control group did not affect their results because neither group of rats showed any effects given their low-dose exposure. Another issue is that the researchers did not look at neurological effects such as changes in learning, memory and behavior.

“What needs to follow is whether these exposures are causing neurobehavioral changes,” Harvard epidemiologist Joe Braun told Environmental Health News, adding that previous research has shown that estrogen receptors in the brains of rats were triggered by low doses of BPA. “Hopefully [the FDA] will address that down the road.”

More research is underway still. The February 2014 FDA study is part of an ongoing two-year assessment of the toxicity of BPA. Dozens of university studies are also in progress to shed more light on just how risky our use of BPA may be. Consumers should continue to take precautions to limit their intake of BPA by avoiding polycarbonate plastic food and drink containers and metal cans, and by refraining from putting plastic items in the microwave-a process that can expedite the leaching of BPA into food.

Dear EarthTalk: I recently became vegetarian for ethical reasons, but I am missing the taste of meat. Are there any tasty veggie options out there that can satisfy my desire for steak and chicken? – Missy Jenkins, Pittsburgh, PA

Answer: Aside from its brutal treatment of livestock animals, the meat industry is no doubt one of the worst offenders when it comes to the environment. Producing one kilogram of beef requires 150 square meters of land and 15,000 liters of water, most of which is used to grow feed for the animal. That same kilogram generates 27 kilograms of climate-altering carbon dioxide, the equivalent of driving a car more than 100 miles. Indeed, beef has 13 times the carbon emissions of an equivalent amount of vegetable-based protein.

Hungry mouths around the world take a hit, too: Some 70 percent of the grain produced in the U.S. is fed to livestock animals but the land used to grow it could feed some 800 million people instead. For this and other reasons many of us have given up meat altogether. But it doesn’t mean we don’t still crave the taste.

Fortunately, there are more choices than ever for vegetarians with latent carnivorous instincts. One young company, Beyond Meat, has millions of dollars in funding from high-tech heavyweights and has made a big splash in recent months with the launch of its first two meat alternative products, Beef-Free Crumbles and Chicken-Free Strips. Each of its products looks and tastes like the meat it is emulating while offering the same protein content-but without any saturated or trans fats or cholesterol, let alone gluten or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In taste tests, most consumers can’t tell which dishes contain actual beef or chicken versus Beyond Meat’s self-proclaimed “perfect substitutes.”

The company reports that it takes four-tenths of a pound of soy and pea plants to make a pound of their Chicken-Free Strips, versus three pounds of grain-based feed to get a pound’s worth of meat from an actual chicken. That all translates into many fewer pesticides and carbon emissions and much less water used in the process. Beyond Meat’s investors include the leading Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams’ Obvious Corporation, and even Bill Gates, who has expressed his hope that the company’s products can play a role in switching more people in developing countries over to plant-based proteins.

Of course, there are many other meat alternatives out there, too. A trip down the freezer aisle at Whole Foods yields sightings of Amy’s Bistro Burgers, Gardenburgers, Boca Burgers, Gardein Ultimate Beefless Sliders and Beefless Tips, Dr. Praeger’s Veggie Burgers and Sol Cuisine Meatless Chicken. Meanwhile, the Meat Alternatives section of VeganEssentials.com offers up Upton’s Naturals’ Bacon Style Seitan Strips, Sophie’s Kitchen Breaded Vegan Fishless Sticks, Field Roast’s Classic Vegan Meatloaf, and even Meatless Select Fishless Vegan Tuna. Another classic option is any number of meatless products from the Kellogg’s-owned Morningstar Farms, which are widely available in mainstream grocery stores from coast-to-coast and which account for some 60 percent of the meat alternatives market in the U.S.

With meat production expected to double by 2050 as the world’s human population tops nine billion, there has never been a better time to start curbing our enthusiasm for conventional steaks, hamburgers, chicken breasts and sausages.

EarthTalk is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E – The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.