Don’t Let This Stop You From Eating More Canned Fish

Photo: pepifoto/E+/Getty Images

Editor’s note: After highlighting the health, cost, and environmental benefits of eating canned fish, Heated received a wide array of feedback. The piece validated canned fish lovers around the globe, opened the minds of former naysayers (we’ve received an unusual number of photos of people trying sardines for the first time), and surfaced several questions and concerns. The most common questions related to concerns about bisphenol A, or BPA, in canned foods, so the following is an exploration of those concerns.

BPA is not good for you. In the early 1990s, BPA was discovered to have a very similar biological structure to the hormone estrogen, resulting in endocrine-disrupting effects. In animal and epidemiological studies, researchers have linked BPA to breast and prostate cancer, reduced fertility, diabetes, genital defects, altered behavior, and weight gain.

BPA is a chemical that is often used to make polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins and has been used in food and beverage containers since the 1960s. Epoxy resins serve as the extremely thin plastic lining found inside an aluminum can. The purpose of this lining is to prevent food from losing flavor or spoiling and to prevent the tin from getting worn out or rusted. No one wants rusted anchovies.

When information first spread about the potential health risks associated with BPA leaching into food, consumer outrage forced manufacturers to switch to alternative materials. Manufacturers began using a variety of plastic solutions, such as vinyl and polyester linings. As a result, approximately 90 percent of canned food items no longer use BPA linings, making it easier for both new and existing companies to source BPA-free cans.

“I think people developed a fear of BPA when the news about it in water bottles broke, and are probably assuming that interacting with canned sardines represents the same magnitude of exposure. It absolutely does not.”

“For us, it wasn’t a challenge to find BPA-free cans,” said Adam Bent, CEO and co-founder of Scout Canning. “Because concern of BPA became so prevalent within the last several years, a lot of manufacturers realized they could no longer get away with [using BPA] and made intentional efforts to remove it from their manufacturing processes.”

Scout is a young canned fishery from Canada’s Prince Edward Island that produces sustainable North American canned seafood products. Their current product lineup includes Atlantic Canadian lobster, Ontario lake trout with dill, and Prince Edward Island mussels with roasted red peppers and tomatoes.

When Scout’s chief culinary officer, Charlotte Langley, began canning seafood along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where she grew up, it was clear that quality would remain at the forefront of her craft. For Langley, this is about more than selling fish.

“Chef Charlotte has always been about preserving food and reducing food waste; she wanted to make canning sexy again, and bring back the heritage vibe that we lost,” Bent said.

Photo: Scout Canning

Scout’s cans are manufactured in a factory in France operated by Trivium Packaging, an international conglomerate in metal packaging. “You can’t just pick up and call your local can manufacturer anymore,” Bent said regarding the due diligence and trust that is required when selecting a manufacturer. “There are no local or medium-sized players in this space; they’re all very, very big companies.”

Trivium, like many other companies, opted into using BPA-free materials because there is reason to believe that these materials are safer. Plus, they meet regulations in markets where BPA use is banned or restricted.

“The fact that they do not contain BPA means that we can supply these cans in markets such as France, where the use of BPA is forbidden,” said Paul Hill, head of lacquer department at Trivium’s research and development center. “We are aware that certain customers would rather avoid the use of [BPA] even if it is fully authorized in their market, and these lacquers permit us to fulfill this request.”

The linings in the cans that Trivium produces for Scout are made of organosols — a material made from vinyl dispersions composed of suspensions of polyester resins in organic solvents. In short, just another variation of plastic that does not contain BPA. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that this alternative is healthier.

What organosols offer is high chemical resistance, thermal stability, and adhesion properties, while only allowing minuscule traces of toxins, if any, into the food products that they’re housing. This is the same function as BPA linings, which raises the question: Are small, sporadic exposures of BPA in canned goods even harmful?

The experts say no.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, “people are exposed to low levels of BPA because, like many packaging components, very small amounts of BPA may migrate from the food packaging into foods or beverages. Studies pursued by FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) have shown no effects of BPA from low-dose exposure.”

Additionally, in 2015, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that there is “no health concern” for any age group from dietary exposure and “low” health concern from aggregated exposure, meaning coming in contact with BPA in dust, toys, or receipts.

But that adds up: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 90 percent of Americans have traces of BPA in their urine. Exposures to toxins such as BPA are just about everywhere, from receipt paper to household appliances to dental sealants.

“If you want to live a completely toxin-free existence, you can’t do it on this planet,” epidemiologist and preventive medicine specialist Dr. David L. Katz said. “It’s just that simple.”

What might sound like a dystopian take is entirely rational. “It becomes a case of making the ‘unattainable perfect’ an enemy of the ‘attainable good,’” Katz said in describing the risk distortion associated with consumers writing off healthy food options like canned fish because of fear of BPA exposures affecting their health.

Running outdoors in moderation is universally accepted as a healthy lifestyle choice. Yet no matter where you live, it’s inevitable that you are breathing in some form of toxic air pollution. This doesn’t mean that you should stop going for your morning jogs, and ultimately increase your risk of major chronic disease. But it does mean that you should avoid putting your mouth up to the exhaust pipe of a pickup truck and breathing in the fumes.

Not all BPA exposures are created equal. “Think about the level of interaction you have with a water bottle, or that a baby has with their milk bottle. You’re reusing the material that is exposing BPA again, and again, and again, and you’re interacting with it throughout the day,” Katz said.

In 2008, Nalgene stopped making water bottles out of its nearly indestructible polycarbonate plastics made from BPA, and in 2012 the FDA officially banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups, which have high levels of interaction and were often being microwaved, resulting in enhanced leaching.

“I think people developed a fear of BPA when the news about it in water bottles broke, and are probably assuming that interacting with canned sardines represents the same magnitude of exposure,” Katz said. “It absolutely does not.”

There are alternatives to eating from a tin if you still want to enjoy the wonders of preserved seafood. Prime examples are anchovies and tuna in glass jars — you even get the bonus of a reusable jar. The lining of the lid, however? You guessed it: BPA.

You don’t need to eat canned fish to live a healthy lifestyle. But if you can benefit from incorporating high-quality tinned fish and seafood into your diet — and they help displace a diet of processed meats and junk food — it presents a tremendous opportunity. The lining of cans, BPA or not, are designed to prevent botulism and engineered to prevent toxins from migrating into your tiny mollusks or fish. Are they 100 percent effective? No. Should that stop you from enjoying these foods? It’s ultimately your decision, but I’ll be having mussels straight from the tin for lunch.

Writer & consumer with a contempt for food waste. @davidneimanis

Sign up for Heated with Mark Bittman

By Heated

Food from every angle. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Get the Medium app