Two years ago, Orville Redenbacher’s iconic company announced in weeks of TV ads that their microwave popcorn was now free of diacetyl.
According to Senior Public Health correspondent Andrew Schneider‘s report in Sphere, diacetyl is the chemical in that disgusting artificial butter flavouring that has been blamed for sickening hundreds of workers, killing a handful, and destroying the lungs of at least three microwave popcorn consumers with what’s been termed “popcorn lung”.
The disease from exposure to diacetyl — bronchiolitis obliterans — is debilitating and potentially fatal.
And because it irreversibly destroys the small airways in the lung, the only hope for many victims is a single or double lung transplant. Almost every other popcorn maker followed the lead of Orville’s parent company, ConAgra Foods, Inc.
But now, health investigators are reporting that the “new, safer, butter substitutes” used in microwave popcorn and other foods can be as toxic as what they replaced.
Even John Hallagan, lawyer for the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, confirms that diacetyl substitutes are actually just another form of diacetyl. Dr. Daniel Morgan of the Respiratory Toxicology Group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences said he has found the same danger in one of the principle components of the butter substitute, a concoction called 2,3-pentanedione. Dr. Morgan said in the Sphere interview:
“It caused the same injuries in test animals as diacetyl, and our preliminary data indicates the toxicity is close to identical.”
It has been almost a decade since occupational medicine specialist Dr. Allen Parmet warned that workers at a Missouri microwave popcorn factory were being sickened by something in the process. Government regulators quickly pointed to diacetyl as the likely villain at similar plants.
In 2004, a $20 million dollar verdict was obtained for Eric Peoples of Carthage, Missouri. Peoples and over 30 of his co-workers from the Jasper popcorn plant in Jasper, Missouri sued International Flavors and Fragrances for severe lung injuries. Two additional verdicts of $15 million and $2.7 million were obtained before all the cases from the Jasper plant were settled.
But it was the case of Elaine Khoury, a Blockbuster Video employee for five years, that has drawn new public attention to the health dangers to consumers exposed to toxic microwave popcorn fumes. As the Blockbuster store manager, every Friday and Saturday, Khoury popped 30 bags of microwave popcorn in a small back room, then emptied them into a popcorn machine to give the appearance that they had been freshly popped. Her lawyer, Ken McClain, explained:
“Eating the popcorn is not the problem. It is inhaling the ‘butter’ vapours when the bag is opened that is causing the lung problems.”
Last year, Elaine Khoury’s lung biopsy at Mayo Clinic confirmed a diagnosis of bronchiolitis obliterans. She is now awaiting a lung transplant, the third North American case of non-factory workers who have contracted popcorn lung disease.
And there may be other nasty culprits lurking in that bag of microwave popcorn. The material coating the bag itself has been found to contain from 6–290 parts per billion of a deadly toxin called perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA.
Toxicologists estimate that microwave popcorn could account for about 20% of the PFOA levels measured in a person consuming just 10 bags a year. PFOA exposure has been associated with birth defects, increased cancer rates, and changes to lipid levels, the immune system and liver function.
Although these health concerns may sound frightening, the real reason to avoid microwave popcorn is more basic. This product represents the worst of modern junk food because it takes an essentially healthy snack (high fibre, low calorie, minimally processed popping corn) and transforms it into an explosion of high fat, high salt and unpronounceable artificial ingredients. I cannot possibly be the only one who notices the difference in the heady aroma of air-popped popcorn compared to that chemical stench of microwave popcorn. As food writer Michael Pollan warns:
“In recent years, we’ve deferred to the voices of science and industry when it comes to eating, yet often their advice has served us poorly, or has merely confirmed the wisdom of our grandmothers after the fact.”
He adds one grandmotherly piece of advice.
“Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
I know that my own Baba wouldn’t recognize 2,3-pentanedione or diacetyl or perfluorooctanoic acid.
And if you think you’ll just skip microwave popcorn in favour of corn popped the old-fashioned way in movie theatres, you might want to read ‘Two Thumbs Down For Movie Theatre Popcorn’, a November 2009 report from the Center for Science In The Public Interest. For example:
“An average medium popcorn tub at the movies has 1,610 calories, 1,500 mg of salt, and 60 grams of saturated fat, thanks to being popped in artery-clogging coconut oil. That’s roughly the saturated fat of a stick of butter and the calories of two sticks of butter.
“Asking for ‘topping’ on movie popcorn is like asking for oil on French fries. Even in theatres that pop corn in canola oil rather than coconut oil, a tub of popcorn without topping may be less likely to clog your arteries but more likely to elevate your blood pressure because of the salt content.”
And if you still insist on making popcorn in the microwave (instead of in the far superior and far safer electric air popper), at least try this simple recipe for Microwaveable Air-Popped Popcorn from www.chaosinthekitchen.com
Katie’s Microwaveable Air-Popped Popcorn
makes about 5 cups per bag, prep <1 min, cook time 2 min
- Add 3 tbsp popcorn kernels to a brown paper lunch bag.
- Close bag. You can fold it over once or twice, or you can tape it closed. Microwave the popcorn on high for approximately two minutes. I found that our popcorn was usually done after about 1 minute and 45 seconds. By two full minutes, it was starting to burn.
- Open the bag, carefully if you plan to re-use it, and season to taste or eat plain.
Katie adds that this popcorn is not only cheaper than the store-bought variety, but equally convenient.
“Just portion out the popcorn kernels into a number of brown bags, fold and tape the bags closed, and store them in the pantry or in your desk drawer. Each bag has about 100 calories and no creepy ingredients!”
For more on popcorn lung disease, read Andrew Schneider’s original article.
Court Awards $7.2 Million in Microwave Popcorn Damages
September 20, 2012 - A Denver, Colorado man who ate two bags of microwave popcorn a day for years and developed a serious lung disease has won a $7.2 million verdict.