Does Extended Bottle-Feeding Really Cause Obesity?

Obesity Campaign Poster

Obesity Campaign Poster (Photo credit: Pressbound)

At 21 months, Maya still really likes hitting the bottle. It’s a ritual — the first bottle of the morning — and a request as soon as I get home from work. She sits on my lap, we cuddle, and she relaxes a bit, her body getting softer and less tense. In the evenings, I don’t give her much milk because it will ruin her dinner. We both know it’s just the pose that matters, and the snuggles that are part of that nice, quiet pause.

So of course I was immediately concerned and even a bit perturbed when my pediatrician rather abruptly told me at our last visit to stop using bottles “cold turkey” because their use is linked to obesity. Her less-than-insightful suggestion was to just get rid of all our bottles at once, and thereby make it physically impossible for Maya to keep using one. At the time, I should have asked her if she wanted to come visit for that little period of self-inflicted hell, even if just to explain to my daughter that we are only depriving her of this small comfort in order to make sure she won’t eventually become overweight.

Regardless of her apparent cluelessness about the importance of easing children into changes in their lives, I had to take seriously the problem she raised about bottles. So I went and read what I could about the study linking bottle usage to obesity (the actual text of the study is $31, and IMHO, not such a good investment).

The study, from the Journal of Pediatrics in May of last year, made headlines at the time that carried its message, including articles titled like this one: “To Avoid Adult Obesity Stop Bottle-Feeding at 18 Months,” from Medical News Today, which intoned darkly:

If you want to reduce your baby’s chances of becoming an obese adult you should not continue bottle-feeding him/her beyond 12 to 18 months.

Who wants a fat kid, really? Or this one, from U.S. News, “Prolonged Bottle Feeding Boosts Kids’ Obesity Risk,” which begins:

Nearly one-quarter of 2-year-old bottle feeders were obese at age 5, researchers say.

Well, I suppose that’s clear enough. But what did the research really say? Here’s more detail from the abstract:

Data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort were analyzed for 6750 US children born in 2001. The outcome was obesity (body mass index ≥95th percentile) at 5.5 years, and the exposure was parental report of the child using a bottle at 24 months. The prevalence of obesity at 5.5 years was 17.6%, and 22.3% of children were using a bottle at 24 months. The prevalence of obesity at 5.5 years was 22.9% (95% CI, 19.4% to 26.4%) in children who at 24 months were using a bottle and was 16.1% (95% CI, 14.9% to 17.3%) in children who were not.

Prolonged bottle use was associated with an increased risk of obesity at 5.5 years (OR, 1.33; 95% CI, 1.05 to 1.68) after controlling for potential confounding variables (sociodemographic characteristics, maternal obesity, maternal smoking, breastfeeding, age of introduction of solid foods, screen-viewing time, and the child’s weight status at birth and at 9 months of age). [Emphasis added.]

I’m struck by several things right off the bat. First, although nearly 23 percent of bottle-feeders were obese at the age of 5 1/2, 16 percent of the rest of the population (i.e., not bottle users) also were, which is only a 7 point difference (though it’s true that the association appears to hold at this level of the analysis).

Second, the sample size is on the small side in terms of who’s left — i.e., 22 percent of the sample used a bottle, 23 percent of whom ended up overweight. That’s a total of 341 kids. If we subtract out the 16 percent that is the general rate of obesity in the remaining population, we’re down to 55 kids whose habits and body weight are driving the conclusions (because they make up that 7-percent spread). The authors say that is a statistically significant number, though, so let’s look at their assumptions more closely.

They used a data set with limited inputs, to be sure. The first glaring omission is that the study did not account for what was in the bottles. Apple juice, for example, does not fill the stomach the way that milk does, and it creates a taste for sugary drinks in children, making it easy to consume to excess. It also contains a significant number of calories (117 per cup).

Whole milk, on the other hand, may be higher in calories, but offers a host of essential fats, vitamins and calcium. It is harder (though certainly not impossible) to over-consume because it is both filling and satisfying. Water, obviously, has no calories.

Formula, much of which is loaded with sugars that stimulate appetite, unsurprisingly is also linked in previous studies to obesity. Researchers here indicate they controlled for breastfeeding as a variable. But the formula versus breastfeeding research is complicated by studies that show bottle-fed infants gain more weight even if the bottles contain breastmilk, meaning that merely controlling for breastfeeding may not be enough.

Given that children are frequently given juices (or even worse beverages like Kool-Aid) to drink, and the small number of families whose habits are driving the conclusions, this seems like an important caveat to the findings, and one that was notably missing from the official conclusion or from the reported coverage of the study.

Instead, the authors publicly suggest the opposite, as here, where one of them claims that the study accounted for “feeding practices during infancy.” Um, I don’t think so. The two variables “age of introduction of solid foods,” and “breastfeeding” are certainly tangentially related to overall infant feeding habits (and perhaps, health), but when a study is attempting to measure the impact of bottle-feeding, controlling for the contents of that bottle strike me, at least, as one of the more important variables to be included in the equation. After all, what a child is actually consuming has just got to be more important than whether it’s being delivered by bottle or cup.

In USA Today’s piece on the article, another expert is quoted on the need to cease bottle use:

“Drinking your calories may not be as filling as eating them,” says Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician in Atlanta and the editor of HealthyChildren.org, a consumer website of the pediatrics academy. “That’s where the obesity problem comes in. It’s so easy to drink the calories, but people often are still going to eat the same amount of food.”

This argument seemed reasonable to me at first glance, but actually doesn’t really hold up. Certainly, the regular visits I made to Jamba Juice during law school likely explain why my exercise regimen at the time yielded disappointingly paltry results. Yet I don’t observe that Maya eats the same amount of food if she is full from a bottle — in fact, I worry that milk will displace other calories because she won’t be hungry, and so we limit the amounts she can drink around meals.

And all this likely misses the point. Above, Shu appears to suggest that children will, in a sense, over-drink (or over-eat because they drank too much). But so long as what children are drinking is good for them, and they are drinking and eating solid foods in the right balance, it seems to me that we wouldn’t want them to drink less. In other words, if the issue is amount, what should it matter if the drink comes from a bottle or cup? Again, parental monitoring of what is consumed, and how much, should matter far more.

Two mice; the mouse on the left has more fat s...

Two mice; the mouse on the left has more fat stores than the mouse on the right. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Second, the study variables omit consideration of the kind of bottle being used, whether glass or plastic. Before you think I’ve gone off the deep-end on this one, consider that studies have shown that Bisphenol-A (BPA) likely plays a significant role in obesity, both by making our bodies produce insulin as though we are consuming twice the calories we actually are, and by helping to flip a genetic switch that predisposes us to be fat.

The study’s data-set spans from 2001 to 2006, a period in which most parents were unaware of the pernicious BPA-in-baby-bottles issue and most bottles still had BPA in them, and in which plastic bottles were the norm, as they still are today. It would need far more study, of course, but in my view it’s at least possible that this is yet another instance of a simplistic analysis of behavioral factors that leaves the possibility of harmful chemical influences utterly undiagnosed.

Third, the authors’ recommendations fail to account for countervailing values in child development that may lead some families and children to benefit from extended bottle use, at least as part of their repertoire. Here’s how one of them breezily put it in an article on the study:

Rachel Gooze [] notes that weaning children from the bottle by the time they are 1 year of age is unlikely to cause harm and may prevent obesity. The authors suggest that pediatricians and other health professionals work with parents to find acceptable solutions for stopping bottle use at the child’s first birthday.

Yet research unequivocally shows that strong bonding with caregivers and relaxation (i.e., low anxiety) is essential to healthy brain development, particularly in young children ages 0 to 3 years. While extended use of a bottle is certainly not an essential part of creating these bonds and a relaxing atmosphere, the act of feeding a child is intrinsically a nurturing moment, and so it may not be irrelevant either. The researchers should have at least considered the possible downsides here.

For our family, Maya never breastfed (which is another story entirely), and so our bonding over a bottle has replaced a rather fundamental missing piece. I’m not eager to let this go based on one study showing she could, maybe, have a slightly greater chance of being obese four years from now, especially given the care and intention I take with her overall diet and the monitoring we do generally of her health, including her weight.

Obesity Campaign Poster

Obesity Campaign Poster (Photo credit: Pressbound)

For example, back on what goes into the bottle (and the baby), Maya almost never has juice, or really concentrated sugar of any kind, including the supposedly “kid-friendly” (non)foods: fruit leather, sweetened yogurt or those mushy fruit slurries in suck-down containers. (I’ll write a post on the re-joined debate over sugar and it’s impact on the body soon.)

If continuing to use a bottle appeared to be causing cavities or hampering her speech development, that would be another issue entirely, and is a legitimate concern raised by dentists (those sugary beverages again) and speech pathologists. In Maya’s case, she now has (I would guess) about 300 words and more every day. She’s also never been very interested in a pacifier or thumb-sucking, either of which can also be a speech development blocker. Moreover, she eats a wide variety of fruits, proteins and vegetables, uses both sippy cups and regular cups, and is learning to use a straw, pursuant to the advice of speech experts.

The bottle is merely a respite from these other ways for her to drink, and I assume will drop away sometime when she’s moved beyond the need for that to be our daily form of checking in. If not, we’ll ease it out of use and replace it with another important bonding ritual we can invent.

In the end, I’m unconvinced by this study, and disappointed that both my pediatrician and the mainstream press appear to have taken its limited data and recommendations as gospel. Clinical advice from most doctors rarely seems to take account of the havoc that would be wreaked on families’ emotional lives by following their rigid approach. And the discourse around the obesity issue has reached such a fever pitch that, as parents, it seems we’re now in a position, essentially, to be bossed around by experts on “slim” evidence indeed.

I hope that parents think through the issue for themselves before feeling guilted into suddenly dropping the bottle, at least based only on this latest — and in my view rather dubious — pronouncement.

###

How does your family come down on this issue? Am I just making up excuses because I don’t want to face the music (or really, screaming)?

Did I miss something important about the study or its implications? Or do you agree with me that this is just another in a too-long line of simplistic anti-obesity messages that fail to grapple with the real issues?

Seeing Red: My Fruitless Search for a Chemical-Free Jar of Tomato Sauce

Tomato slices

All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.

Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

Baby’s got sauce, she’s got sauce, she’s got sauce. Your baby ain’t sweet like mine.

― G. Love and Special Sauce

About a month back, a commenter to the blog inquired about what we do for tomato sauce.  The answer then was: we use glass jars, not cans, and buy organic.

But that got me thinking. I knew that some baby food jars have or had Bisphenol-A (BPA) in the plastic lining under the lid, which is disturbing, to say the least. BPA has gained a real notoriety, of course, for acting like a hormone, or estrogen, in the body.

Yet substitutes for BPA in food packaging are also suspect, for at least two reasons: 1) Some of the substitutes are chemically similar and may even be more potent than BPA; and 2) because most types of plastic act like an estrogen, as a 2011 peer-reviewed study from Environmental Health Perspectives made clear in its startling conclusion:

Most plastic products release chemicals having EA [estrogenic activity].

They went on to explain that to properly test for EA, you have to use a wide range of solvents to mimic how liquids impact the materials:

Our data show that both more polar and less polar solvents should be used to extract chemicals from plastics because ….because plastic containers may hold either type of liquid or a liquid that is a mixture of more polar and less polar solvents (e.g., milk). When both…solvents are used, most newly purchased and unstressed plastic products release chemicals having reliably detectable EA, independent of the type of resin used in their manufacture, type of product, processing method, retail source, and whether the product had contents before testing.

Our data show that most monomers and additives that are used to make many commercially available plastic items exhibit EA. Even when a “barefoot” polymer (no additives) such as [polyethylene] PE or polyvinyl chloride does not exhibit EA, commercial resins and products from these polymers often release chemicals (almost certainly additives) having EA. [Emphasis added.]

Many factors, like exposure to heat and sunlight, impact the amount of estrogenic chemicals that leach into the food:

We found that exposure to one or more common-use stresses often increases the leaching of chemicals having EA. In fact, our data suggest that almost all commercially available plastic items would leach detectable amounts of chemicals having EA once such items are exposed to boiling water, sunlight (UV), and/or microwaving.

This is why, for example, when the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the Food and Drug Administration over BPA in food packaging, they also asked FDA to evaluate any industry substitutes for safety. (As you likely know, this spring the FDA kicked the can down the road on that one, so to speak, deciding inexplicably to wait until we’re all totally hormonal before it will ban BPA from food packaging.)

I’ve also read that packaging tomatoes is evidently a challenge given their acidity, so that even companies that go BPA-free on some things haven’t solved the tomato challenge. For example, here’s a quoted letter from Eden brand, which actually does have BPA-free can linings, on their jar lid linings:

Currently, we are told, there is no known viable alternative to BPA based epoxy coatings that provides the same level of corrosion resistance and is as safe. We continually push our cap suppliers to develop BPA free constructed caps that will deliver required corrosion resistance, shelf life, and safety.

After this all occurred to me, I started putting circles of wax paper under the lids of the sauce jars when I opened them, despite the fact that this is pretty much after-the-fact. Most lids already have some gloppy red stuff on them by the time you open them up, so really, whatever’s on that lid is basically also in the sauce. Still:

My Pyrrhic Gesture

I cut around the lid and screw it on, but really? To actually address the issue, right off the bat, I had three main questions –

  1. Are the lids on glass jars BPA-free or not?
  2. If not BPA, what are companies using? Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)? Fluorotelomers (PFOAs)?
  3. And what’s in Tetra paks, anyway (i.e., those square containers for some tomatoes, soup and the organic chicken stock we use)?

I also wanted to know, given its slippery properties and known use in fast food packaging, whether fluorotelemers (precursors to a biologically super-persistent chemical known as PFOAs; explained in this post about my abusive Teflon relationship) were being applied to keep it all slick-like.

On that last one, no one would say. No one would even reply to the question, which I found odd. (Someone with actual pull should look into this a little, IMHO.)

And the answers to the other questions, insofar as I was able to noodle them out, were unsettling, to say the least.

I wrote letters — at least twice — to every brand of organic jarred tomato sauce at my hyper-crunchy local market:

In addition, I wrote to Pomi, which is not organic but sold in Tetra-paks, and to Trader Joe’s (the specific questions I asked are at the bottom of the post).

Right away, it appeared that I was onto something, well, dicey. Typically when I ask a question, I get a response right away, but this time, the answers were few and far between. For a few companies, I didn’t even get an acknowledgement, which is just weird.

For example, I got crickets, despite multiple prompts, from: Trader Joe’s, Middle Earth Organics, and Pomi, and an auto-reply but no real answer from Walnut Acres. The rest of the responses, such as they are, are below.

1) Are the lids on glass jars BPA-free or not?

The short answer is: they are NOT.  The lining contains BPA, though some companies did explain that the BPA is under several layers of other types of plastic.

For example, the owner of Organicville, who nicely wrote me back personally, ferreted out this eventual answer from her supplier:

Caps for pasta sauce:

We make every effort to source packaging materials that do not contain potentially harmful chemicals. However, sometimes it can be difficult to do given what is available in the marketplace. The inside of our pasta sauce caps have two coats of sealer between the food and the metal of the cap. The first coating does have BPA present. The second protective sealant does not, which isolates the first coating from contact with the food product in the jar.

In addition, BPA migration is reduced by the following three points. 1. An additional protective vinyl base overcoat facing the food, which isolates the epoxy BPA containing coating. The coating containing BPA can never be in contact with the food. 2. The cap’s inner surface is separated from the food by an area of air/vacuum. 3. The surface area exposed to the food is substantially less for a twist cap than for other canned tomatoes for example.

Eden brand, which is one of the only brands that bothers to have non-BPA can linings, didn’t write me back at all, but has basically the same thing on its Web site:

Is the amber glass tomato jar lid BPA free?
A search for a lid for our glass jars again confirmed that ‘there’s no such thing as a perfect food package.’ Regardless, we found the best there is.
The inside of the twist caps has two coats of sealer between the food and the metal of the cap. The first applied coating has BPA present. The second protective sealant does not, isolating the first coating from contact with the jar’s contents.
Potential for migration of BPA is reduced by the following:

  1. An additional protective vinyl base overcoat facing the food, isolating the epoxy BPA containing coating. The coating containing BPA can never be in contact with the food.
  2. The cap’s inner surface is separated from the food by an area of air/vacuum.
  3. The surface area exposed to the food is substantially less for a twist cap than for canned goods. [Emphasis added.]

Sounds like these two have the same supplier, which made me wonder how many companies make jars that size, anyway.

Amy’s brand, which is supposed to be so family-friendly, was happy to brag about their new BPA-free can linings, but utterly ignored my questions about jar linings:

I’m so sorry so much time has passed before responding. Your query was passed along to us at Fortune Public Relations. I’ve attached the press release about the Amy’s non-BPA liners. The glass jars are not made with BPA. Unfortunately, I don’t have any specifics in regard to your other questions. 
Thanks so much for your interest in Amy’s and your concerns about BPA liners. We’re thrilled that Amy’s has moved all of its canned products to non-BPA liners. Let us know if there’s anything else we can do for you.

So, the glass jars lack BPA, which should be obvious, but nothing about the lids for the jars.

Note that Amy’s also ducked the question about what is being used as a substitute in the cans, which is also missing from their Website announcement:

We are pleased to announce that as of March 1, 2012, Amy’s has completely transitioned to cans using no BPA in the formulation of its liner. Even though BPA is omnipresent in the environment from a multitude of sources, testing levels on our canned products with the new liner are showing reduced BPA levels of less than 1 part per billion.

I wrote back to say that I was surprised that Amy’s would not tell me what was being used as a substitute in the cans. No response. A BPA-free can is likely good news. But I was as unimpressed by their approach to customer service as I am by their flavorless frozen hockey pucks “burritos.”

Muir Glen (owned by General Mills) also wouldn’t answer the questions, really. It actually took numerous deliberately annoying posts by me and my helpful pals to the company’s Facebook page, which is their only consumer contact point, on a sub-page they sent to digital Siberia, to get any answer at all. Here’s the saucy parts of that back-and-forth:

  • MG: Hi Laura – We recently completed our transition to a can liner made without BPA. The new liner is made of vinyl and does not contain phthalates. It is an approved liner and has been safely used in food products for years.
  • Me: Thanks so much for your answer. If it is vinyl, does it contain PVC or flourinated chemicals? Also, approved by whom please?
  • MG: To answer your questions, there are no harmful chemicals in the liner. The liner has been thoroughly tested and used as a food can lining for more than 20 years.
  • Me: Sorry, but that vague answer is not really responsive to my specific question. It’s not like the options for non-BPA lined cans are a secret — some companies use oleoresins, a more natural option, and other use layers of plastic. It’s strange to me that you wouldn’t be more forthcoming. Don’t you think that, as a consumer of your products, I deserve to know the details of the food I buy?
  • Others also helpfully chimed in: What is the name of the new chemical or chemicals you are now using in place of BPA?/ Interestingly, BPA had been thoroughly tested and has been used as a food can lining for decades as well. It is an interesting conundrum, wondering if the solution is better or worse than the problem. / Muir-Glen, can you be more specific and answer Laura’s question about the liner containing PVC and flourinated chemicals?
  • Me: Just learned Muir Glen is owned by General Mills. is that why they won’t answer my questions???
  • MG: Laura, The lining in our BPA-free cans has been safely used in food products for more than 20 years, and fully complies with U.S. Food and Drug Administration requirements. It’s a non-epoxy can that does not contain phthalates or any unsafe or unproven components. For competitive reasons we don’t disclose our exact packaging formulations. We recognize your detailed questions above, and apologize that we can’t answer every one of them, but this is as much information as we can provide.
  • Me: Thanks, at last, for some response. I do appreciate that. However, you also appear to recognize the inadequacy of this information from a consumer perspective. Your mere assurance that something is not “unsafe” or that it meets legal requirements (which I would assume it does!) is not enough information for me to evaluate the validity of your claims on safety, given that federal law STILL allows BPA (and other endocrine disrupting chemicals) in food packaging, and I don’t believe there’s a rule on PFOAs or PVC at all. [Note: I was wrong on PVCs, as below.] Furthermore, I really don’t see how answering my questions on what chemicals are NOT in the lining and what TYPE of lining is used could possibly be a competitiveness issue, given that I haven’t asked for any detail on chemical formulations and presumably, your competitors could merely buy one of your cans and analyze the contents of the lining. Lastly, your answer only addressed can linings, and I was actually MORE interested in glass jar lid linings, as I’ve avoided cans for years due to these concerns.

A got a whole lot o’ nothin’ after that. (I gather from these slides by Pomi that Muir Glen/General Mills is actually one of the only companies to have cracked the problem of a BPA-free lining for canned tomatoes, which may explain why they were so dodgy.)

Field Day did provide some specific answers, peppered with both good and bad news. This is a fairly thorough reply, but notably, no information on the substitutes, if any, in packaging listed here as BPA-free:

Regarding BPA in Field Day cans: 
The cans do contain trace amounts of BPA.  All containers supplied for our products have an internal enamel system on the body and container’s ends.  The internal enamel serves a dual purpose where it protects the product from the container as well as the container from the product.  All enamel systems are safe and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for product contact. 
As much as we would like to turn the switch off for BPA we must also be assured that we are offering a safer alternative. We are working hard to source out BPA Free packaging in every category. There are great replacements in some categories and we do use BPA Free packing on the Field Day items listed:
  • Organic Applesauce-BPA Free cups
  • Eco Friendly Baby Wipes-BPA Free tubs and packages
  • Organic Balsamic Vinegar-BPA Free caps
  • Organic Fruit Cups-BPA Free cups
  • Organic Maple Syrups-BPA Free jugs
  • Organic Easy Spread Peanut Butters-BPA Free jars
  • Italian Sparkling Mineral Water-BPA Free bottle
However, there is no single alternative replacement for BPA in all can linings. Each food product formulation has its own set of demands. For example, acidic foods present particular challenges that differ from other types of foods. Once a BPA replacement is identified, its performance must be tested over the shelf life of the particular food product for its safety and regulatory approval before it can be used.
Given the growing evidence and consumer concern about BPA’s impact on human health and the environment, Field Day is working closely with its current product suppliers to adopt BPA-free packaging where ever possible while maintaining Field Day’s high nutrition and quality standards. Our suppliers are working hard to source alternatives that are proven safe, effective, and are regulated appropriately. In fact, our olives and beans are now being tested in BPA Free can alternatives, and if results are favorable we may have a substitute in 2012 or 2013! Again, due to olives having a long shelf life the tests for alternative packaging must run as long to support that.
Field Day will identity BPA-free packaging on its product labels and customer website either when they become available or when they are switched over to BPA Free packaging. Field Day will continue to foster the natural product industry’s discussion of BPA concerns and alternative packaging options.[Emphasis added.]
 
Latimore Valley Farms not only didn’t answer, but pretended I was asking about whether the sauce was actually prepared in the jars (duh), and reassured me that no sauce touches the lid (see the above pics for how true that is).

Hi Laura,  We do a marinara sauce, tomato soup, barbeque sauce that contain tomatoes.  All products are in glass jars not metal.  We cook the product to a high temp in steam kettles and then put it in the jars and leave about one quarter of an inch down so the food is not in contact with the lid.  We do not cook the product in the jar.

My response: Hi, Thanks so much for this response, but it really doesn’t address the questions I asked. In terms of the jars you use, is there BPA or other endocrine disruptors — or PVC or flourotelemers, in the lining under the lid? Are these chemicals are in the jar is the question. All best, Laura

Radio silence.

The rotten tomato for all of us:

I would assume that jar lids for everything – drinks, honey, peanut butter, tomato sauce, you name it – has BPA in it, and if you’re lucky it’s down (or up!) a layer or two. (And of course most cans do as well, including soda, juice and beer cans.)

Given that not a single company that levels with the public said that they were BPA-free with regard to jarred tomatoes, and that consumer awareness hasn’t really caught on with regard to BPA concerns in jar lid linings (as opposed to cans), I think companies are hoping that this word doesn’t get out.

(As some confirmation, this article about the European Union rule banning BPA in baby bottles (effective last year) essentially says that what the plastics folks are really worried about is “an escalation of action into other packaging areas, such as epoxy-based coatings for metal packaging.” Perhaps that’s why in the U.S., the chemical and plastics industries last fall actually asked regulators to ban BPA in baby bottles here as well, in an attempt to head off their PR problem.)

Back to tomatoes: I suppose it’s possible that some jar lids for less acidic foods than tomatoes don’t have BPA, but no one said so, even the companies with lots of products in addition to tomato sauce. To do this, companies would have to source BPA-free jars and non-BPA free jars for different foods, which would likely raise expenses.

I would bet, based on these answers, that most companies have not even bothered to try to obtain BPA-free lids for jars in the absence of any regulation or public information to the contrary.

2) If not BPA, what are companies using?

Since companies ARE still using BPA in jar lids, you’d think this one would be simple. But in asking these questions, I stumbled upon another problem: the layers of plastic that enclose BPA in the lid are likely to be made of vinyl, a known carcinogen. Here’s more on that from the refreshingly helpful, candid owner of Organicville:

Yes, part of the pasta cap is PVC-based, no phthalates are present though.

Yup, “PVC-based.” And the other suppliers I quoted above also ALL mention vinyl when we do get any detail about what’s in the lid. Actually, this article helpfully lays out the four current possibilities for BPA substitutes:

There are currently four generally recognized alternatives including vinyl, acrylic, polyester and oleoresins.

Gee, three of those sound like holdovers from a super-fly 1970s wardrobe of unbreathable fabrics. No wonder companies don’t want to say. Some polyester in your soup, anyone?

Oleoresin is the only one that doesn’t seem utterly revolting to have near food and appears to be relatively safe on my initial review. It must work decently well, because Eden says, as to cans, that’s their BPA substitute:

Since April of 1999, EDEN beans have featured a custom made can lined with an oleoresinous c-enamel that does not contain the endocrine disrupter BPA. Oleoresin is a mixture of oil and resin extracted from plants such as pine or balsam fir.

As vinyl is the other liner that was mentioned for jar lids by the companies, that’s what I looked into next. I was shocked to learn that vinyl chloride is actually authorized for use in food packaging by the oh-so-on-it FDA:

The FDA is responsible for regulating vinyl chloride as an indirect food additive. With regard to components of coatings, paper, and paperboard, the FDA states that when vinyl chloride is copolymerized with certain other substances, it is a safe food-contact surface.

In contrast, here’s what the government’s own toxicology report says about vinyl chloride:

  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), ranks vinyl chloride as a Class A carcinogen;
  • The American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists calls it a “confirmed human carcinogen;”
  • And “[v]inyl chloride is a known human carcinogen by the inhalation route of exposure, based on human epidemiological data, and by analogy the oral route because of positive animal bioassay data as well as pharmacokinetic data allowing dose extrapolation across routes. Vinyl chloride is also considered highly likely to be carcinogenic by the dermal route because it is well absorbed and acts systemically (EPA 1996).” [Emphasis added.]

My translation: Vinyl causes cancer if you eat it.

And this 2010 Report for the President’s Cancer Panel called “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk” states that vinyl chloride has a “strong” causal link to liver cancer and soft tissue sarcoma.

Vinyl chloride has also been banned for use in aerosol pharmaceuticals:

Vinyl chloride: All aerosol drug products containing vinyl chloride. The inhalation of vinyl chloride is associated with acute toxicity manifested by dizziness, headache, disorientation, and unconsciousness.

So, in addition to BPA, we all may be eating from food packaged in vinyl or another plastic right above the sauce – some of which, unlike Organicville’s, could also have harmful pthalates (softeners, like DEHP) in it as well.

And vinyl (the PVC form, as here) is specifically flagged in the research way back up at the top of this post as generating estrogenic activity, so we may be covering up BPA with other estrogenic plastics.

PVC, or vinyl, is the same stuff we have been told by environmental groups to avoid in our shower curtains and liners, for example, and has that awful acrid smell when you open the package on those kinds of products. Mmm, that goes well with garlic.

The other rotten tomato for all of us:

Vinyl. In our food.

Most ironically, if companies are trading out BPA for a layer of vinyl, we may be worse off than we were before.

3) OMG. What about Tetra-paks? Will you take those from me too?

The good news is that it appears to be true that Tetra-paks are BPA-free.

The bad news on Tetra-paks is that, at least for tomatoes, I didn’t see an organic option.  And that, sorry to say, the packaging has aluminum, several layers in, and the inner layer is made of polyethylene plastic, according to this helpful presentation from Pomi’s Web site.

Dealing with the layers in turn: 1) Aluminum is certainly a suspect metal, particularly with higher levels of exposure, such as for workers, and in children. But it’s evidently not in contact with the food. 2) I asked Pomi about whether the polyethylene was treated with anything, and got no answer at all.

Polyethylene (PE or PET) is identified by a “1” and is typically considered one of the safer plastics: it’s what most water bottles are made of, for example.

Unfortunately, I did find several health concerns that have been identified – one recent review of many other studies finding endocrine disrupting effects from leaching in PET bottles, for example. The study found that the amount of leaching depended on whether the bottles were subjected to heat, for example, as well as their age.

It stands to reason that, if tomatoes are really that good at breaking down chemicals, there may be far more plastic-related chemicals in the sauce for those packages than there are for water, for example.

Side investigation: Are milk-boxes safe?

I also got curious about the smaller Tetra-paks that we very occasionally give Maya containing Horizon organic milk. (As a side note, it used to completely frost me that they market sugary milk, in chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavors, as convenience food to children, who don’t need added sugar in anything. Most Starbucks don’t even stock the plain milk, which is so incredibly annoying when you’re out and about with a child you really don’t need to be any more hyper. But it’s actually far worse than that, as you’ll see.)

The Horizon rep, whom I spoke with on the phone, confirmed information similar to the above. Their Tetra-pak contains:

  • 70% paper;
  • 6% aluminum;
  • 24% polyethylene (the innermost layer; no additives).

She clarified that the aluminum does not contact the milk. Of course, the milk is basically encased in polyethylene, which, as noted in the quotes way up at the top, can leach estrogenic chemicals even without additives.

That got me thinking about regular milk cartons. After being prompted by a comment, I called Horizon back and learned that even their regular big milk cartons have a layer of polyethylene plastic on the inside, in contact with the milk. I guess it makes sense that it’s not going to work if it’s all cardboard, but I know I hadn’t focused on this issue at all until now.

So, even though its darn inconvenient and we have to pay a bottle deposit, we’ve now switched milks, once again, this time to the glass containers with organic, pasture-raised milk, which is only one brand sold by my local hyper-crunchy coop. It is delicious, and unlike most whole milk, which still has been centrifuged and has had fat removed, the cream and milk solids are still floating around in it. So that’s an upside, at least.

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Conclusion:  In the Sauce, Indeed

As we all know too well, we’re swimming in plastic and so is our food.

Following this little adventure into food packaging, here’s what I know and don’t know:

  • Eden brand uses BPA-free linings in cans (oleoresin); not tomato cans; not jar lids (It’s labeled on the cans I’ve seen, which is great);
  • Muir Glen (General Mills) uses BPA-free linings in some cans, including tomatoes; not jar lids (not sure if it’s labeled or what the BPA substitute is);
  • Amy’s now uses BPA-free linings in cans; not jar lids (no information on the BPA substitute or labeling);
  • Field Day has some items in BPA-free packaging, as above (no infomation on substitutes; not sure what’s labeled);
  • Basically all jar lids still have BPA in them, though it may be under a layer of vinyl, raising separate concerns about both cancer and estrogenic activity;
  • Tetrapaks are another form of a plastic bottle, basically, and while they may be safer, they raise the same issues as any other plastic bottle, except for acidic foods like tomatoes there may be more leaching.

In sum, on the tomato sauce question, what I take from this is that it would be really hard to know without a specific comparison by a bio-chemist whether the small amount of BPA and exposed vinyl in jar lids from glass jars are more or less safe than non-organic tomatoes from a polyethylene-lined, aluminum-based Tetra-pak. And all of these linings are suspected of being estrogenic.

Basically, in the face of no good options at all, I am going to try to make my own fresh tomato sauce or pesto whenever I can. And to see if I can find some Weck jars without any plastic-y surface under the lid and maybe even try my hand at canning fresh ones.

Or in a pinch, I’ll buy the jarred stuff from Organicville, just because she was a human being and straight with me.

In the meantime, we should all talk up this issue of the need for JAR LIDS – and not just cans – that are BPA-free. The Pomi slides, and this industry analysis, both make clear that the major trade-offs for the food packaging and food companies for substitutes for BPA are two:

  1. Cost of the packaging (increased by between 3 cents and 13 cents per can);
  2. Shelf-life (lowered to 18 months).

These are really unbelievably petty concerns in the face of the hormonal onslaught their plastic containers are exposing us all to.

Beverage containers, cans and jars should all be free of BPA-type plastics AND vinyl, and the industry should be required to switch to oleoresins or find other safe, non-plastic options.

If this reduces shelf life, that really seems a small price to pay. We all have too much junk in our cupboards anyway.

And for companies like some of the baby-food ones, who have made a switch to BPA-free jars, we should make them tell us what they are using instead. If it’s acrylic or polyester, wouldn’t you like to know? I wouldn’t dress a baby in that, much less make her eat it…

Though why consumers have to, once again, do the job that should really be done by the FDA is beyond me. Only the government has the regulatory power to make companies do the right thing, and a decisive government rule would be far more fair — both to the marketplace, so that companies all face the same costs, and to consumers, so that we don’t need to become super-sleuths just to buy a stupid jar of tomatoes.

Remember what lead pipes did to the Romans? In point of fact, given our global economy, this is actually a species-level concern. Our food should be sold in safe containers. Really. If we can put people on the moon, I think we should be able to figure this one out.

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My persnickety questions to companies:

Greetings,

I am a blogger at www.Laurasrules.org – who writes on environmental health matters and I am doing a post on tomato sauce. I have a few questions for you – the answers will be evaluated for transparency for consumers and completeness.

1)     Do cans sold by your company containing tomatoes, including sauces and chopped tomatoes, contain BPA in the lining?

2)     If not, what kind of lining material is used?

3)     Is such lining free of similar endocrine-disrupting chemicals? For example, is Bisphenol-S, Bisphenol-B, or Bisphenol-F used? Other endocrine disruptors and/or bisphenols?

4)     Is such lining free of poly-vinyl chloride (PVC)?

5)     Is such lining free of fluorotelemers, which are precursors to PFOAs and are used in food packaging?

6)     Do glass jars sold by your company containing tomatoes, including sauces and chopped tomatoes, contain BPA in the lid lining?

7)     If so, is it in contact with food or is there an intervening layer? If there is an intervening layer, what evidence is available about whether it leaches into the food?

8)     If not, what kind of lining material is used?

9)     Generally, is such lining free of other similar endocrine-disrupting chemicals? For example, is Bisphenol-S, Bisphenol-B, or Bisphenol-F used? Other endocrine disruptors and/or bisphenols?

10)  Is such lining free of poly-vinyl chloride (PVC)?

11)  Is such lining free of fluorotelemers, which are precursors to PFOAs and are used in food packaging?

Thank you for your time. I hope to be able to make recommendations to consumers based on this information.

Pastoral or Pastiche? The Fictional Farm and a Philosophy of Food

“Many animals live on the farm. The cow and her calf live in the barn. The horse and the colt live in the stable. Mama hen and her chicks live in a coop.”

Maya’s books are full of lies. Chock full, you might say.

Even setting aside all the animals’ surprising gift of gab, book after dog-eared book has the pig running after the goose, consorting with the horse, and negotiating a game with the cow, all around a red-doored barn, sitting high on a grassy hill.

Contrast this heartening (if admittedly corny), picture with the chicken hellscape in Nicholas Kristof’s column about an investigation into an egg farm in today’s New York Times:

In some cases, 11 hens were jammed into a cage about 2 feet by 2 feet. The Humane Society says that that is even more cramped than the egg industry’s own voluntary standards — which have been widely criticized as inadequate.

An automatic feeding cart that runs between the cages sometimes decapitates hens as they’re eating, the investigator said. Corpses are pulled out if they’re easy to see, but sometimes remain for weeks in the cages, piling up until they have rotted into the wiring, he added. Other hens have their heads stuck in the wire and are usually left to die, the investigator said.

Several states – and all of Europe – have banned the most confining types of cages for egg-laying hens. But due to a lack of national standards in the U.S., animal welfare laws on farms are generally spotty and weak.

In other news just from today, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it would begin a voluntary program to require prescriptions for antibiotic drugs for healthy farm animals. Since the drugs been used to spur growth rather than treat illness, risking super-bugs, this is a step in the right direction, albeit hampered inexplicably by its “voluntary” nature.

On the even ickier side, a small study of slaughtered chickens found (admittedly harmless) e coli fecal contamination in 48 percent of the samples tested. Mmm. Some poop with that hot wing?

Sadly, none of this is really news. If you have the stomach for it (and I don’t, most days), check out this This American Life episode for television (yes, TV), in which they visit a pig farm so removed from the barnyard that the Muppets’ segment “Pigs in Space” appears eerily prophetic.

The most heart-breaking part of the whole porcine show is when the farmer and his son visit their tiny group of rootin-in-the-dirt “outdoor” pigs and reminisce about the past in which pigs were pigs, and the push for production didn’t require farms to take on crippling debt to pay for expensive technologies that, quite literally, alienate the humans and animals involved.

As Michael Pollan observed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, modern practices of mono-cultural farming takes animals off the land, thereby creating health and waste management problems for the animals (and us), and impoverishing the soil so that it requires fertilizers, which in turn pollutes the soil. Rinse, repeat.

And garbage in, garbage out. The food resulting from this system is nutritionally impoverished, because chickens are not eating the grubs and insects that add minerals to their eggs, and because the meat of grain (as opposed to grass) fed cows is lower in Omega-3s, which are critical to health, as Marion Nestle explains in her seminal guide to healthy food, What to Eat.

Cows in particular, because they are ruminants that are supposed to eat grass, become ill under feedlot conditions. The animals, to maintain a baseline in such an unnatural setting, are given drugs, including hormones, caffeine, antibiotics, and even anti-depressants, all of which ends up in our water and also likely in our food.

I am not a vegetarian. Nonetheless, it troubles me, as it obviously does Kristof, that animals do not live as animals in this industrialized conveyor belt of nutrition pellets. It seems obvious to me that animals are capable of fear, stress, and suffering, and that they deserve access to sunshine and some reasonable semblance of a life that suits their animal ways.

Humans also fare poorly in this system, whether as workers, as chronicled in the wandering but humane video novella, Fast Food Nation, or as consumers of an impoverished and polluted food supply.

It is also profoundly, even unethically, wasteful. As Pollan explained in an incredibly hopeful and worthwhile summary of his thesis on how food policy should change, from the sunnily naïve perspective of 2008:

When we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. …[Instead,] crop plants and animals must once again be married on the farm — as in Wendell Berry’s elegant “solution.” Sunlight nourishes the grasses and grains, the plants nourish the animals, the animals then nourish the soil, which in turn nourishes the next season’s grasses and grains. Animals on pasture can also harvest their own feed and dispose of their own waste — all without our help or fossil fuel.

The truth is, when I look at Maya’s books, I think we know all this. The books are more than nostalgic markers for a pastoral imaginary that no longer, generally speaking, exists.

Both her natural obsession with animals and their many, many weird noises, and these books’ reflexive, fantastical depictions of the animal world, speak to a deep craving in children, and in all of us, to learn our place in the order of things.

We see who we are in how we treat animals, if we’ll only look. In this, the moral argument by animal rights’ activists is essentially correct. As John Berger observed in About Looking regarding a similar nostalgic assignment of place:

Public zoos came into existence at the beginning of the period which was to see the disappearance of animals from daily life. The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe, to see them, is, in fact a monument to the impossibility of such encounters.

So we’re all up against impossibility. And nonetheless, as grandiose as it may sound, I source our meat and dairy with great care, mainly because I want to nurture sources for these with intentional respect.

I choose certified organic grass-fed meats and pastured eggs because those animals are in the right relationship with the environment, with the sun, and with the nutrients that are supposed to enrich that food. The food is better, the farming we support is better, and the concerns about toxic additions like pesticides and hormones simply go away.

It’s flippin’ expensive, and certainly a luxury in a world where people still struggle to eat at all. For our part, though, I’d rather buy less, and more of the best — meat, milk, butter, and eggs — than just read to Maya from another damn book with talking animals, playing another winsome, cutesy game of “let’s pretend.”

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What we do:

  • I like certified organic, because, as Marion Nestle puts in What to Eat (at 45): “[I]f you want fewer pesticides in your body and in the bodies of your children, buy organics. If you want fewer pesticides in soil and water, organics are also a good idea.”
  • Organic certification provides an agreed-upon set of standards, and government enforcement. Organic certification also has some shortcomings, including costs that favor larger producers, and animal welfare conditions that may not be much better than conventional farms (though with fewer antibiotics and pesticides in the feed). If farmers at the market say they are better than organic, that’s all well and good, but I have to take their word for it. I tend to go for certified (and local) if I can, even though it’s far from a perfect system. Still, local close-to-organic (to keep carbon miles down) can be fine if you feel confident in the promises made about the product. Visiting a farm is also a nice way to see for yourself how animals are treated.
  • Going beyond organic, basically, is all about grass and sunshine. So, organic, grass-fed beef is best (grass-fed and grass-finished is even better), even though, frankly, the rules defining “grass-fed” on the label leave a lot unspecified. If you can ask questions at the farmer’s market, all the better.
  • For milk, we buy whole, organic, grass-fed milk (which is quite a shift from the watery milk-like substance I grew up with). For safety reasons, I don’t believe in giving raw milk to children (if adults want to risk their health for a marginal increase in enzymes, that’s up to them).
  • For eggs, we buy pastured (sometimes labeled pasture-raised) and organic. These are often hard to find (Trader Joe’s never has them, Whole Foods rarely). Our crunchy-as-hemp-granola local natural food Coop and farmer’s markets are the best sources I’ve come across. 
  • For butter, we buy grass-fed and organic (see the pattern?). Given that chemicals like pesticides accumulate in fats, the key for butter is organic.
  • For yogurt and cheese, I look for grass-fed and organic, but will settle in a pinch for “rbST-free,” which indicates it’s free of bovine growth hormones.
  • For chicken, I look for pastured chicken, raised sustainably. At Whole Foods, this is indicated by the 4 or higher animal welfare rating, which always seems to be sold out. I’ve been buying whole young chickens at our farmer’s market and sticking the whole thing in soup, or, failing that, hacking it up myself, which is not a particularly pleasant thing to do, given that I’m hardly out of the Cordon Bleu.
  • We make do with less meat, due to the significant increase in price. I tend to make stews, soups and other dishes that stretch flavors along for half a week or so.
  • It is far more expensive to eat this way. And pickier to source, by far.
  • Buying in bulk from a farm share (or “CSA”) sometimes helps with costs, and usually is fresher and better quality. It’s always nice to know the farm and farmer, and connect the dots.
  • When traveling or eating out, basically all bets are off. I try to find organic snacks, and pack Maya’s food and milk at least. And we eat out much less than we used to. Still, the dearth of sources for the best food is a problem. When we’re out and about, given the challenges, I let it go, and figure that most of what we eat at home is better, and that has to be good enough.

More Resources:

  • Eat Wild is a great resource for locating wilder foodstuffs, local farms, and for reading about the benefits of grass-fed and pastured foods.
  • You can look up your local CSA’s at Local Harvest. Or ask around at your local farmer’s market, since you already have the pick-up location figured out.
  • If you haven’t read it already, Omnivore’s Dilemma is a moveable feast for back-to-nature foodies.
  • I also generally follow anything the eminently smart and sensible Marion Nestle writes, but much of her focus is on the (utterly inadequate) regulation of food, and (frighteningly corrupt) politics of food. People who are not nearly as nerdy as I am may have more life-affirming preoccupations.