Note: This post was updated on 6/4/13 to reflect the latest findings regarding BPA-free lids.
There has been a lot of talk lately about BPA (Bisphenol-A) and the fact that it is in most of the canning lids we use for home preservation. It raises a whole scary set of questions, like:
What is BPA exactly? Is home canning still safe? Are there other options?
Let me see if I can fill in the blanks for you here. First of all, don’t panic. Canning is still safe! Really, truly it is. But, you will be hearing about the BPA issue in the news and as canners, we need to stay informed so we can continue to use the best methods possible.
What is BPA?
Let’s start by looking at what BPA is. Bisphenol-A is a synthetic estrogen that is used to make plastic hard and to create a coating that keeps metal from rusting. It is currently in a lot of the plastic containers and commercial metal cans we use everyday. When food is in direct contact with BPA, it is absorbed into the food and when we eat that food, the BPA goes into our bodies.
What is bad about this synthetic estrogen is that various studies have shown that it can cause serious health issues. (Everything from disrupting hormone levels to causing cancer.) These studies have also shown that even though BPA is not stored in the body very long, most of us have traces of it because we are constantly exposed through plastic. The bottom line is that it is not a good thing for us to be eating.
There has been much debate about these studies and even entire countries cannot agree on the safety issues. For example, Canada has banned the use of BPA, while the European Safety Authority has declared it perfectly safe. In November 2010 there was a conference on BPA to hash out the global consensus of the risks in using it. And there has been a lot of discussion since then.
So, is BPA Really in Home Canning Lids?
Yes. Unfortunately, BPA is in most 2-piece metal canning lids that come with standard canning jars here in America. It is used in the coating that prevents the lid from rusting. (See recent update to this below)
So, as we are trying to do something good for our bodies (no preservatives) and good for the environment (eating locally), we suddenly discover that there is something potentially dangerous in the lid of our jar! What are we to do?
Understand the Danger:
In order to make a good decision about canning lids, we need to fully understand the dangers. We know that heat activates BPA and we are heating the lids when we use them. However, we also know that the food must be in direct contact with the lid in order to leach BPA into the food.
If we are canning properly, using proper headspace and the jars are stored in the upright position on the pantry shelf, our food should NOT be in direct contact with the lid or the BPA in the lid. Therefore, it should be safe to eat the food inside the jar.
But…there is the argument that the food can bubble up and hit the lid during processing. Yes, that is a real possibility. Although there are studies testing the amount of BPA leached when food is stored in direct contact for long periods of time, there are no studies showing BPA levels inside a home canning jar where the food might have touched the lid for a few seconds.
So, we really don’t know about that one. All we do know for sure is there is a potential danger and for some people, that is enough incentive to want to look for alternatives.
So what are our choices?
BPA-Free Lids - UPDATE (6/4/13):
When this post first came out in late 2010, Ball and Kerr canning jar lids did have BPA in them. Since these are the most popular canning lids in use, it has been a real concern. But in just the last few weeks, the company has announced that the newer Ball canning lids are BPA-free. I contacted the Ball Canning Company and they confirmed this with the following message:
The dedicated work of our in-house engineers and scientists along with our outside partners has culminated in a bisphenol A- (BPA-) free coating for home canning lids.
This coating is compliant with FDA regulation 21 CFR175.300 – Resinous and polymeric coatings, for products and processes, and the sealing material is compliant with FDA regulation 21 CRF 177.1210 – Closures with sealing gaskets for food containers. Ball and Kerr products are now manufactured using a BPA-free coating.
These lids can be identified by the presence of “Made in USA” on the packaging and lids themselves, and by dots around the border of our Collection Elite series lids. The lids also have a coating on the underside that is two or three shades darker than the previous lids – more of a taupe as compared with the previous cream.
Tattler Lids: These are made from a BPA-free plastic. They have two parts: a round, white plastic disk and a rubber gasket. You use the same metal screw top ring (that came with your canning jar) to hold them in place during processing. Unlike regular canning lids, these BPA-free lids are reusable and you can order them on line. The USDA has not approved these lids, but that does not mean they are unsafe, necessarily. It just means that there have been no USDA studies yet on their safety or reliability for holding a seal. Perhaps with a little more pressure, the USDA will test some of these alternative lids.
I have tried these lids and I can tell you that they are a bit tricky to use at first. It takes a few batches to get the hang of it and you may have some seal failures in the beginning. But once you get used to the rubber gasket, they work pretty well. They do not “ping” like a metal lid (signifying a vacuum seal) and you can’t test by pressing on the center. To check the seal, you must gently tug on the top. However, I do have to say that several canners who live in warmer climates have told me that the seals can fail during the summer months. I have not experienced this myself.
Weck Jars & Lids: Another option to avoid BPA in lids is a Weck canning jar. Weck jars also are not approved by the USDA (only because they have not been tested, not that they don’t work), but are approved in Canada where they are quite popular. They use a glass lid with a rubber gasket and clamps. They come in many beautiful shapes, but are a bit expensive and can be difficult to find except through mail order. (You can order from the link above.) If you want to learn more about them, I wrote a post all about BPA-free canning with Weck jars here.
The Bottom Line:
Using standard USDA approved lids or the BPA-free lids (that are not approved by the USDA) is a personal choice. We each have to make this decision based on the type of foods we can and what we are comfortable with.
What do I use? I was using all of the lids mentioned above. But now I will check out the new BPA-free lids from Ball. I am so pleased that they finally changed over.
USDA report: Update on Bisphenol A