Facing mounting public pressure, manufacturers are quietly scrambling to find alternatives to BPA for their products. What they are finding is that BPA-free options are hard to come by, and it's even more difficult to ensure that their wares are in fact BPA-free.

If you're just tuning in on the BPA issue, you need to know that BPA is a chemical (also known as bisphenol-A) commonly used to make plastics shatterproof and flexible. It is also found in the linings of metal food-grade cans. BPA was first used commercially in food products in the 1950s after scientists discovered its ability to make plastics more durable and shatterproof. By the '60s, manufacturers were using it to create epoxy linings for steel cans because it held up under heat and extreme conditions, did not affect the taste of foods, prevented bacterial contamination and was relatively cheap. By the 1970s, BPA linings had become the industry standard.

But it didn't take long for the tide to turn for BPA. Beginning in the '80s, health experts started to investigate the effects of the chemical (and its estrogen-like properties) on the human body. Over the years, study after study have suggested that even small doses of BPA can led to a number of serious health effects.  

Today, BPA is the bane of the industry. Several municipalities, Minnesota and Canada have banned BPA from baby bottles. Congress is considering a bill filed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) that would ban BPA from baby bottles, sports water bottles, reusable food containers, infant formula liners and food can liners. Last month, the FDA said it would launch fast-track studies to clarify the research on BPA. It is also encouraging manufacturers to move away from the chemical.

Despite these warnings and public pressure for companies to voluntarily rid their products of BPA, many manufacturers are finding it difficult to make their products BPA-free.

For instance, according to a recent article in the Washington Post, Eden Foods, a company that makes canned organic products, has tried switching to a can lined with oleoresin, a mixture of oil and a resin extracted from plants like pine. The new cans are 14 percent more expensive, about 2.2 additional cents per can, and the new cost has been passed directly to the consumer. Unfortunately, oleoresin deteriorates when in comes in contact with acidic food, so Eden Foods continues to use BPA in its linings for canned tomatoes. This is apparently why trace amounts of BPA — one part per billion — were detected in independent tests of Eden Foods' baked beans. The beans were made with tomato puree that had been stored in a can with a BPA lining.

Another difficulty in finding a BPA-alternative is that the testing process is slow. Product testing must take into account a shelf life of two to five years for most canned foods. Industry experts are reluctant to rush a product to market only to discover two years later that it is contaminated with bacteria.

For now, the best way for a consumer to be sure that a food is BPA-free is to avoid canned foods altogether. When possible, use frozen fruits and vegetables, and buy soups and beverages in glass containers. "Brick packaging" made from cardboard for soups, broths and tomatoes is another BPA-free alternative.

MNN homepage photo: Floortje/iStockphoto

BPA-free: Easier said than done
Manufacturers find it's not so easy to get the ubiquitous chemical out of their products.