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Research indicates that common BPA replacements may pose many of the same health effects as the original chemical. Getty Images
  • A chemical used in processed foods called bisphenol A has been associated with hormone disruption in the body, potentially leading to increased rates of obesity.
  • Food manufacturers are replacing it with chemically similar substances called bisphenol S and F.
  • Recent research finds these chemicals are associated with increased childhood obesity.
  • The best way to avoid bisphenol exposure is by reducing consumption of processed foods in cans, not microwaving polycarbonate food containers, and avoiding other sources of bisphenol like thermal paper receipts.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is well-known for its estrogen-mimicking properties, and is used in many canned foods. While manufacturers have been removing this compound from their products, new research is showing that the substitute might be just as bad.

Bisphenol S (BPS) and bisphenol F (BPF) are manufactured chemicals now being used to replace the BPA in plastics lining aluminum cans and items like cash-register receipts.

But, according to a study published in the Journal of the Endocrine Society, these two substances are also linked with an increased likelihood of childhood obesity.

Researchers analyzed data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to evaluate associations between BPA, BPS, and BPF, and body mass outcomes among children ages 6 to 19.

They found children with higher levels of BPS and BPF in their urine were more likely to be obese compared to those with lower levels.

Asked if she found the findings surprising, study author Melanie Jacobson, PhD, MPH, of NYU School of Medicine, told Healthline, “Unfortunately not. BPF and BPS have almost the same chemical structure as BPA, so we might expect that they could act similarly in the body.”

"Previous research has shown similar findings in both children and adults. For example, in a previous study, we found that BPA was associated with a higher prevalence of obesity in U.S. children, and this study found the same trend among these newer versions of that chemical," said Jacobson.

BPA had already been identified as an obesogen in a 2017 study.

“An obesogen is a substance that disrupts the endocrine system and the body’s metabolism such that it promotes fat accumulation, weight gain, and obesity," Dr. Nagendra Gupta, internist at Texas Health Arlington Memorial, explained.

He continued: "It actually belongs to a class of chemicals, which are known as endocrine disruptors. These chemicals look like and act like hormones, thus confusing the human endocrine system and causing disruption of its normal functions, resulting in a variety of effects, some of which can be harmful.”

“Our study was about exposure to bisphenols, which are synthetic chemicals found in aluminum can linings, plastics, thermal paper receipts, and other consumer products, and their association with obesity among a nationally representative sample of U.S. children and adolescents," said Jacobson.

"We found that children who had greater levels of these chemicals in their urine were more likely to be obese compared with children with lower levels,” she said.

“We conducted this study because exposure to these chemicals is very common in the U.S.," she continued. "Bisphenol S and bisphenol F are replacement chemicals for bisphenol A, which has been decreasing in use in recent years due to concern over potential health effects.”

“These compounds basically mimic the effects of some hormones such as estrogen and glucocorticoids, which play an important role in metabolism of fat and reproductive health,” Gupta said.

Some chemicals used in the process of packaging or preparing foods, like bisphenol, fall under a U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) rule called Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).

This means that substances added to food must be FDA-reviewed unless the substance is “generally recognized, among qualified experts, as having been adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of its intended use.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics said in a policy statement that many of these substances were grandfathered for approval because they were considered GRAS during the 1950s. However, this doesn’t consider the impact of chemicals that can be absorbed into food indirectly, such as through dyes or packaging.

The Academy also said “the GRAS process, although intended to be used in limited situations, has become the process by which virtually all new food additives enter the market. Consequently, neither the FDA nor the public have adequate notice or review.”

Responding to growing concerns over bisphenol and other chemicals, then-FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb and FDA Deputy Commissioner Anna Abram said in a 2018 statement: “Food safety is at the core of the agency’s mission to protect and promote public health for our nation’s consumers. We take seriously our commitment to the consumers and industry who look to the FDA for important guidance when it comes to our nation’s food supply, including the safety of substances used in food.”

According to Jacobson, some manufacturers are using naturally-based can liners, such as oleoresin.

“However, without a clear label to differentiate bisphenol from non-bisphenol linings, parents can minimize children’s exposure by reducing consumption of processed foods such as canned foods, avoiding thermal paper receipts, and not microwaving polycarbonate plastic food containers.”

She cautioned, “Although our study did not examine pregnant women, avoiding exposure to these chemicals is advised given the vulnerability of the fetus to any chemical exposures.”

“These chemicals can be present in basically anything. Besides plastics and aluminum cans, BPS is found on a variety of surfaces, such as documents generated from a thermal printer. Likewise, many skin lotions are packaged in plastic bottles that might result in exposure to bisphenol compounds,” explained Gupta.

“Given the labeling restrictions confined only to BPA as of now, it is very hard for people to screen for the presence of BPS and BPF in plastics,” he said.