When many people think of November, they envision Thanksgiving and the array of canned goods used to quickly whip up their favorite holiday meals. But often overlooked are the potential toxins that could be lurking in those cans, contaminating the food, and negatively affecting people's health. For the second year in a row, I'm hosting a "No-Can-Ber" challenge to help shed light on a healthier way to spend the month, hoping to inspire some to make a positive lifestyle change.
The inspiration behind the "No-Can-Ber" challenge came in 2012 when my family made our New Year's resolution to avoid canned foods. This goal was not only attainable (unlike how most New Year's resolutions end up) but would also allow us to experiment with more healthy recipes and avoid exposure to the toxic chemical BPA, found in most canned food lining. After 10 successful months of eating can-free and realizing how easy it is, we wanted to share our experience and recipes with others.
So in November of that year (when many people turn to canned food recipes), I shared the "No-Can-Ber" challenge on my website and with my Facebook fans. My goal was to highlight the invaluable health benefits of going totally can-free with meals. While fresh and frozen foods also provide more nutrients than canned and processed ones, I wanted people to know that there is also another, powerful reason to go can-free: bisphenol-A (or BPA). The chemical BPA, which can leach into people's food or drink and disrupt hormones in the body, is present in the epoxy lining of many metal food cans. And although BPA is found in various other sources in the environment (including in certain types of plastic items and cash register receipts), a new study by the Breast Cancer Fund shows canned food as a major route to human BPA exposure.
Perhaps the most startling information presented by the Breast Cancer Fund report is the affect BPA exposure can have on a fetus within the first 11 weeks of a woman's pregnancy (around the time many women are just finding out they are pregnant). During this time period, a fetus exposed to BPA in their mother's womb can suffer developmental damage that may not show up for years, or even decades, later. Since fetal development is especially sensitive to fluctuations of estrogen and estrogen-like compounds like BPA, the chemical could spark changes in the fetus that may lead to disease in adulthood.
While BPA is particularly harmful to a growing fetus, all people can suffer health consequences from exposure to the toxin. Studies have shown that traces of BPA in humans can lead to infertility, susceptibility to breast and prostate cancer, early onset of puberty, diabetes, and heart disease. Although it's difficult to completely avoid BPA in daily lives, research suggests one of the best ways to minimize exposure is to stop using and handling products that contain the chemical.
Because the first "No-Can-Ber" challenge was such a success, I decided to do it again this year in hopes of inspiring more people to make the can-free switch. Throughout the month, I will share some of my favorite can-free recipes that use fresh ingredients, as well as can-free recipes submitted by others, on Facebook and Twitter. Some typical canned foods I ask people to try to replace include: coconut milks, soups, meats, vegetables (including tomato paste and sauce), one-can meals (like pastas or raviolis), juices, fish, beans, replacement drinks, and fruit. Below are some of my own suggestions as well as ideas from the Breast Cancer Fund on how to help kick the can:
- Soak dry beans overnight to cook yourself, for a can-free alternative.
- Eden Foods is currently the only company that prints "BPA-free" on the label of their canned beans and discloses its replacement (vegetable resin enamel) to consumers. Though other companies may be going BPA-free, they may not be disclosing what they're using instead of BPA and whether or not the replacements are safe.
- Replace canned fruit with dried or fresh alternatives. In addition to BPA in the liner, many canned fruits contain added sugar, so avoiding them may also help cut calories.
Ravioli, Pasta with Meatballs and Other Canned Meals
- All-in-one canned meals have some of the highest levels of BPA over other canned foods. To replace them, try carving out time to cook quick and easy fresh meals.
- Or, choose healthier frozen options. If you choose frozen meals in a plastic container, make sure to remove the meal from the plastic tray and place it on a microwave safe plate or oven safe dish to heat. Many plastics contain chemicals, including BPA, which could leach faster into the food when heated.
- Many soups and broths are available in Tetra Pak containers (which look like oversized juice boxes) that are BPA free.
- If you enjoy cooking, you can make your own soups and broths, freezing extras in glass jars for later use.
- Like canned all-in-one meals, canned vegetables have some of the highest levels of BPA among canned foods. For the quickest replacement, buy frozen vegetables and boil or steam them on the stove. If using the microwave to steam frozen vegetables, make sure to use a safe glass or ceramic bowl and cover the bowl with a plate instead of plastic wrap.
- Instead of canned tomatoes, some grocers now use Tetra Paks or glass. If your favorite store doesn't carry them, ask.
- The healthiest option is checking out what local and seasonal fresh vegetables are available in your area. They are most likely the least expensive, freshest, and tastiest produce options available.
I hope that those who decide to join us in our "No-Can-Ber" challenge and make the switch to can-free even for just one month will experience similar healthy lifestyle benefits to my family and friends. Being aware and taking action, big or small, always helps create positive, lasting changes.
Hannah Helsabeck is President of Wild Mint, a toxin-free, eco friendly company that seeks to educate about toxic chemicals in products and provide safer solutions.