In the annuls of weird holidays, February is canned food month. What that means in real life is that you might see some good sales on canned goods at the store—but should you stock up? Here's a quick primer on the health risks and benefits of canned foods.
Canned Food Pros
- Canned food processing facilities are usually located very close to the farms where the food is grown. This means that the food is processed and packaged quite quickly after being picked, unlike fresh produce that can sometimes sit for weeks in warehouses. According to the FDA, "Most produce will begin to lose some of its nutrients when harvested. When produce is handled properly and canned quickly after harvest, it can be more nutritious than fresh produce sold in stores."
- Canned food stays fresh and edible longer than frozen food (or fresh, obviously), so it's best for long-term storage.
- "Canned" food can also refer to foods packaged in glass jars and cardboard "Tetra Paks."
Canned Food Cons
- Nearly all cans are lined with the controversial chemical, BPA (Bisphenol A). Studies have shown that the levels of BPA that leech into canned foods are well below the EPA's safety threshold for BPA in the environment. The EPA's figures suggest that the level of BPA consumed from canned foods would be safe unless an individual consumed 1,300 pounds of canned food daily. But many scientists and consumers are skeptical and concerned about the safety of BPA, especially for pregnant women and children. There isn't much hard science to rely on for either side of the argument.
- Canned foods that are highly acidic (tomatoes, tomato-based soups, citrus products, acidic beverages like soda, and canned alcoholic beverages) leech more BPA from the can lining than other foods.
- Canned food is pasteurized to eliminate most food-borne illnesses. According to the FDA, "The heating process during canning destroys from one-third to one-half of vitamins A and C, riboflavin, and thiamin. For every year the food is stored, canned food loses an additional 5 to 20% of these vitamins. However, the amounts of other vitamins are only slightly lower in canned food than in fresh food."
What it comes down to is that canned food is neither all good, nor all bad. For some families, the convenience of canned foods may trump the possible risk of BPA exposure. In addition, it's hard to beat the shelf life of canned food for storage and emergency preparedness (unless you're preserving food yourself at home). But for high-risk populations like pregnant women, nursing mothers, and very young children, avoiding BPA may be more important.
Some Guidelines for Buying Canned Food
- The difference in the nutritional content of some canned food compared to fresh or frozen is negligible, but both fresh and frozen are a better choice if you are concerned about BPA exposure.
- If you only occasionally use canned foods and are not pregnant, nursing, or feeding small children, the risk from BPA is probably low. However, if you eat a lot of canned foods, especially the most acidic ones, it's probably a good choice to look for BPA-free alternatives.
- Look for alternative packaging for the most acidic foods, including tomatoes and soups, like glass bottles and cardboard Tetra Paks. As consumer concern over BPA grows, more and more stores are carrying brands using alternative packaging. A very few brands of canned foods are BPA-free, so look for those words on the label and buy BPA-free when you can.
- Organic canned food does not mean BPA-free, so read labels carefully.
- Learn basic water bath canning and start canning some of your own food to replace commercially prepared "canned" foods.
- Having some canned food on hand for emergency preparedness is probably wise. Be sure to check the expiration dates regularly and use up or donate foods that are nearing the end of their useful life.