Microwave popcorn: (still) bad for you

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

  1. Add 3 tbsp popcorn kernels to a brown paper lunch bag.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

See also:  Make That a Super-Giant-Jumbo Popcorn For Just Fifty Cents More!

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NEWS UPDATE:

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.

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19 thoughts on “Microwave popcorn: (still) bad for you

  1. Oh, no. You’ve just ruined our day!

    At my office, mid-afternoon popcorn is a ritual when we are feeling peckish! That ‘chemical’ smell has always bothered me and now I know why.

    So I have decided to make up a bunch of these brown lunch bag alternatives to the commercial types and try a taste test on my workmates, while saving money at the same time.

    THANKS for this. Love your site!

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  2. I suspect that the biggest danger here is actually for those in the product manufacturing business, not so much for the infrequent casual consumer of microwave popcorn.

    However, since we are all overwhelmed with artificial additives and chemicals in everyday life, many of which we have no idea about, it makes sense to try to minimize those that we are aware of. Thanks for the easy recipe for an alternative to that chemical version.

    Keep up the good work, Carolyn.

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  3. Wow, I am stunned. and sad, I can truly say. I love microwave popcorn, just like others love bad yucky things, the super lowfat popcorn has been my helper while I lost weight thru the years. But! I am happy to see there is a way to make a healthier version. Thanks for writing about this – I do read alot about eating healthy so feel kinda out of it to have missed this. But onward and upward (and healthier).

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    • Hello Pam – good luck with the transition over to the new brown bag version of popcorn. I hope you’ll soon learn to love the healthy ‘super lowfat’ kind as much as you have loved the ‘bad yucky’ kind!
      cheers,
      C.

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  6. As with all things consumed, moderation is the first step. Too much of even good food will kill you. Another big issue with microwave popcorn is salt. It has the kick of a mule.

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  7. I love our $20 hot air popcorn popper. Zero oil, and it’s really fun for my toddler to watch the process of hard little kernels popping and becoming a yummy snack.

    BTW, there’s a chemical in the microwave bags that vaporizes and leaches into the popcorn, regardless of the referenced lung disease in factory workers. Who knows how much of a concern that is, but when there are great lower-cost alternatives to microwave popcorn, I think one might as well opt for the one with the least chemical additives.

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  9. I am a researcher who has done extensive investigations into the cause of diacetyl-associated morbidity.

    Too many are quick to dismiss the damage that might be done from ingesting this material. Diacetyl has, for many years, been used in biochemical research as an arginine inhibitor. Arginine is highly represented in many biological systems within the human body. One undeniable interference is with the nitric oxide (NO) system that our lungs employ as a defense mechanism. Diacetyl disables this system by binding to, and eliminating, the arginine used to produce NO. Additionally, it is highly necrotic to all tissue in the lung, so it actually has two damaging courses of action for the lungs.

    To date, no research has been conducted to assess damage done to other system/pathways, yet it is hard for me to believe that this substance is as benign when eaten as manufacturers claim. The Nitric Oxide system is also used in smooth muscle to protect that tissue, which encompasses nearly every organ in the body.

    Diacetyl is deadly, no matter what amount to which the body is exposed. Butter flavoring, whether artificially produced or extracted from dairy products, is still diacetyl. These are things everyone should consider before exposing yourselves or loved ones to this most toxic chemical.

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  10. Funny how we are ingesting corn which is genetically modified, chemicals added to “taste” buttery, then put in a radiation machine to cook. This is only one example of adulterated food fed to us by big business with claims of it being healthy. Then we wonder why obesity, diabetes, cancer and chronic illness are at an all time high in history……

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    • And the even “funnier” part is how we get so used to the odd taste and smell and ‘mouth feel’ of this pretend food that it seems normalized to us.

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