The real horror of movie night is not always what’s on the screen, but what might be lurking in the snack bowl. Make butter-flavored, microwavable popcorn a regular feature of home entertainment, and pretty soon the only thing entertaining you may well be the Grim Reaper. In other words, too much popcorn could be hazardous to your health.
In the past, the only real health risk associated with popcorn was the possibility of choking on a wayward kernel. In fact, plain, air-popped popcorn was and still is considered a healthy, high fiber, sugar-free, low-fat snack. Add a little salt and butter and things get a bit dicier, but even still, in moderation, popcorn can be part of a healthy diet.
The real health hazards of popcorn began to appear on store shelves in the early 1980s with the advent of artificially flavored, microwaveable popcorn. Two chemicals involved with microwaveable popcorn that have corrupted the good name of this previously innocuous snack are diacetyl and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
Diacetyl is a chemical commonly used in butter flavoring, which when heated and inhaled, has lethal potential. It is a suspected carcinogen and has been implicated in an incurable, likely fatal obstructive lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as “popcorn lung.”
The disease was thus named after popcorn factory workers who were exposed to diacetyl on a daily basis and developed the irreversible lung pathology as a result. For those most severely affected by bronchiolitis obliterans, the only treatment is a lung transplant. Failing that, the only outcome is death.
The bad news for the non-factory workers of the world is that you do not have to work in a popcorn factory to experience the health hazards of diacetyl exposure. Routinely inhaling and consuming butter-flavored microwaveable popcorn, in the comfort of your own home, could also expose you to toxic levels of diacetyl.
The other chemical and probable carcinogen involved with microwavable popcorn is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). It is an ingredient in Teflon and is used to coat the inside of microwavable bags. The coating ensures even cooking, prevents sogginess and keeps popcorn from sticking to the bag.
Unfortunately, traces of PFOA can also “season” the popcorn itself with its own special blend of carcinogenic emissions. It is unknown exactly how much PFOA is toxic to the human body, but it is known to cause cancer and birth abnormalities in lab animals.
While many companies have removed diacetyl from their products, it has been suggested that substitute butter flavoring agents may pose just as much carcinogenic risk as diacetyl.
The goods news regarding PFOA exposure is that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in collaboration with some of the largest manufacturing companies in the country, has mandated to reduce and eventually eliminate PFOA emissions by 2015.
However, until such a time that consumers can be assured of a toxic-free popcorn experience, popping popcorn in your handy-dandy microwave could indeed be hazardous to your health.