How To Stress Less This Thanksgiving

Joseph Perrone Chief Science Officer, Center for Accountability in Science
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Sitting in bumper to bumper holiday traffic, listening to annual family squabbles, coordinating cooking schedules—Thanksgiving is already one of the most stressful times of the year. Now, activists are adding a new level of stress by warning that many of your holiday favorites might pose serious health risks.

One of the easiest ways to reduce cooking-related stress is to take shortcuts, and using canned foods like pumpkin and cranberry sauce can make food prep less hectic. To keep these canned goods from spoiling, manufacturers seal cans with a liner containing bisphenol-A, or BPA. And that makes canned food the enemy of environmental activists.

The Environmental Working Group’s “Guide to a Healthy Thanksgiving” urges cooks to avoid canned green beans lined with this “toxic chemical.” The Breast Cancer Fund claims the Thanksgiving meal delivers a “very concerning amount of BPA.”

So should you kick those cans to the curb?

Expert regulatory bodies don’t think so. Recent reviews by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European Food Safety Authority examining dozens of new BPA studies conclude BPA poses no risk to human health. Their findings echo similar assurances from regulators in Canada and Australia.

The primary criticism of BPA is that animal studies have shown it can mimic estrogen in the body. But the levels are too low to pose any threat to human health. As a review of BPA research published in the journal Toxicological Sciences explains, “even at levels of exposure 4000-fold higher than the maximum exposure of humans in the general population there are no discernible adverse effects” in female rats.

In fact, soy is a stronger mimicker of estrogen than BPA. So vegetarian fans of Tofurkey (a soy-based meat-free turkey replacement) are actually exposed to greater levels of estrogen-mimicking compounds than you’d get by eating canned foods.

For those of us who prefer real turkey to tofurkey, activists like the “Food Babe” have another warning: your Thanksgiving bird might have been given antibiotics.

Low levels of antibiotics are used by many turkey farmers to treat birds that get sick or as a preventive measure in birds if, for example, other birds start getting sick. However, the USDA requires these antibiotics to be long gone from the meat before turkeys reach your table — and the department monitors antibiotic use and randomly tests turkeys for traces of antibiotic residue.

Put simply, any turkey you buy should be considered antibiotic-free.

Many oppose giving antibiotics to farm animals because of fears it may contribute to the spread of antibiotic resistance. However, banning disease-preventing antibiotics may do more harm than good.

Denmark phased out antibiotic use for disease prevention in the early 1990s. As a result, the country’s farmers had to use more drugs to treat sick animals. Yet the country has seen no reduction in antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans.

Activist warnings don’t stop with antibiotics and BPA. As the Food Babe, Greenpeace, Council for Responsible Genetics and others warn, genetically modified foods (GMOs) could be “lurking” in your Thanksgiving meal.

While up to 80 percent of packaged foods contain GMOs, that shouldn’t worry consumers. Major health and science organizations around the world, including the World Health Organization, National Academy of Sciences, and American Medical Association declare there’s no evidence GMOs pose any risk to our health or the environment.

You can avoid GMOs by choosing organic products, but the most rigorous studies have shown organic and conventional crops are nutritionally equal. Organic produce also isn’t pesticide-free — organic farmers regularly treat their crops with biocides.

There are plenty of things to worry about this Thanksgiving, like what’s actually in that weird green Jell-O salad? But science shows even if you don’t pay extra for organic foods or a “free-range, antibiotic-free” turkey, you can rest easy knowing the food on your plate is perfectly safe to eat.

Dr. Joseph Perrone is the chief science officer at the Center for Accountability in Science, a project of the nonprofit Center for Organizational Research and Education.