Could Microwave Popcorn Be Hazardous To Your Health?

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Is Microwave Popcorn Bad For You?

Microwave popcorn may seem like a lovely treat but the trans fats, high salt content, and the possible presence of carcinogens in the packaging could take away some of that sheen. The diacetyl used in the butter flavoring could raise the risk of lung disease and bronchiolitis obliterans. It is also dangerous to those involved in its production, exposing them to toxic health hazards. New norms are now in place to reduce the risk, but there’s reason for you to read the package labels carefully too.

Popcorn is a delicious and relatively low-calorie, fiber-rich snack that’s quick to make. But the convenience of microwave popcorn may be overshadowed by the potential health risks it presents. The typical bag of microwave popcorn isn’t just corn and oil as you’d expect. It also has artificial flavoring agents to create the buttery taste, plus lots of salt, and sometimes even trans fats. Here’s how that plays out for your health.

Trans Fats In Microwave Popcorn Raise Heart Disease Risk

Microwave popcorn, like so many other processed and packaged snacks, often contains trans fats. In fact, it is among the foods most likely to contain trans fats, along with ready-made frosting, stick margarine, frozen pizza, and coffee creamer. There’s a move to significantly cut down or eliminate trans fats from such snack foods because of all the possible health risks, including heart attacks, from excessive consumption of trans fats.1

The United States Food and Drug Administration has tightened its norms on the use of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the likes of which are found in microwave popcorn too. They caution that PHOs can cause the levels of low density lipoprotein cholesterol to rise in the body, raising your risk of heart disease. Manufacturers have been given a period of three years beginning 2015 to modify their products to completely eliminate these artificial trans fats (natural trans fats from meats and dairy can’t be removed and occur naturally in these foods). Until then, they advise you as consumers to minimize your intake of trans fats and to read labels to avoid such foods.2

Suspected Carcinogen PFOA Present In Microwave Popcorn Bags

According to some reports, a suspected carcinogen perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) found in bags of microwave popcorn may be responsible for as much as 20 percent or more of the PFOA levels found in the average American resident’s blood. While nonstick pans and teflon have come under scrutiny for possible carcinogen content, an FDA research team found that grease repellant coating of packaged food wrappers, like the kind used in microwave popcorn bags, have fluorotelomer coatings. Microwave popcorn bags were also found to have the highest amount of coating – about 25 mg per square decimeter. Some fluorotelomers can degrade to form PFOA when the bag is heated.

They also found that an alarmingly high amount of the substance migrated to the popcorn oil from the bags. Even more than from nonstick cookware when it is first heated to over 175 °C. Toxicologists estimated that you’d end up having 110 μg of fluorotelomers or as much as 0.017 ppb of PFOA in just one bag. And according to scientists, that is not an insignificant amount, especially if you look at regular consumption over time.3

Excess Salt Raises Risk Of Cancer, Heart Disease, High BP, And Stroke

Salt contains a lot of sodium which in large quantities could cause high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attacks. It could also damage your kidneys, aorta, heart, and even bones. But salt also gives food its “more-ish” taste. And that’s true for microwave popcorn too! The rich saltiness combines with the buttery flavor to make you reach for handful after handful of the snack. And that’s how you could easily end up having too much sodium with a bag of popcorn. A higher intake of sodium and salty foods has also been connected to a raised risk of stomach cancer.4

Propyl Gallate May Cause Stomach/Skin Problems And Raise Cancer Risk

Propyl gallate, a chemical used in the packaged food industry, acts as a preservative, preventing spoilage of fats in microwave popcorn.5 The white powder may, however, cause skin rashes and stomach problems. There are also fears that it could raise the risk of cancer.6

Higher COPD Risk From Inhaling Butter Flavoring Among Workers

The butter flavoring in microwave popcorn contains diacetyl which if inhaled continuously over time could cause lung function abnormalities. Researchers found that people working in a microwave popcorn facility had higher than normal rates of abnormalities and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)-linked mortality than the population average. This was especially so among workers who had been employed in the period before the company cut down diacetyl exposure in their production process.7 Whether this level of cumulative exposure is possible in a home environment even among heavy consumers of the product is debatable. However, prolonged exposure does cause these issues.

Higher Risk Of “Popcorn Lung” From Diacetyl In Flavoring

Microwave popcorn line workers at factories have also been seen to be at risk of bronchiolitis obliterans or popcorn lung as a result of cumulative diacetyl exposure.8 This lung condition is irreversible and can leave a patient with inflammation in the bronchioles, the tiniest airways in your lungs. This causes excessive scarring that can block your airways. You might notice shortness of breath, a dry cough, wheezing, and fatigue.9 Many workers are on lung transplant waiting lists.

As these harmful effects of exposure were discovered, rules changed, making it mandatory for workers who were in microwave popcorn packaging plants to be given respiratory protection.10 The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health puts the recommended exposure limit in their draft at 5 parts per billion (ppb) during a 40-hour work week.11

Microwave Popcorn Also Has Skin, Eye, And Respiratory Irritants

The delicious buttery flavor of microwave popcorn might mask some of the potential irritants it contains. Among other things, a pack may contain organic ketones as well as nonanone or methyl heptyl ketone and 2-butanone or methyl ethyl ketone. And these are all clear liquids labeled skin, eye, and even respiratory irritants.12

Healthier Alternative To Microwave Popcorn: Make Your Own!

If you do want to indulge in some popcorn, try regular corn. Simply add some butter or oil to it before popping it in a brown paper bag that’s folded over twice at the open end. Or use a glass bowl with a lid. About a quarter teaspoon of oil to every quarter cup of unpopped corn should be adequate.

You’ll also be able to season it to taste and avoid overdoing the salt and grease in the snack, making a much healthier but just as delicious fresh, hot popped version. It barely takes a few second to transfer the corn and oil to the brown paper bag and the popcorn you get is sans all the trans fats, salt, additives, and chemicals.13 You’ll be surprised at just how quick and easy it is!

References   [ + ]

1.Benac, Nancy. “Will Health Canada follow US move to eliminate trans fats?.” CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association Journal 186, no. 1 (2014): E9.
2.Final Determination Regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils (Removing Trans Fat). U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
3.Renner, Rebecca. “It’s in the microwave popcorn, not the Teflon pan.” (2006): 4-4.
4.Health Risks and Disease Related to Salt and Sodium. Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
5, 10.Produce, Fresh. “Artificial Chemicals in Food: Additives in Modern Food 84.”
6.Delicious and Satisfying Meals in Less Than 30 Minutes! Discover Dietitian-Approved Brands You’ll Love!. LifeRich Publishing.
7, 11.Halldin, Cara N., Eva Suarthana, Kathleen B. Fedan, Yi-Chun Lo, George Turabelidze, and Kathleen Kreiss. “Increased respiratory disease mortality at a microwave popcorn production facility with worker risk of bronchiolitis obliterans.” PloS one 8, no. 2 (2013): e57935.
8.Kreiss, Kathleen, Ahmed Gomaa, Greg Kullman, Kathleen Fedan, Eduardo J. Simoes, and Paul L. Enright. “Clinical bronchiolitis obliterans in workers at a microwave-popcorn plant.” New England Journal of Medicine 347, no. 5 (2002): 330-338.
9.Bronchiolitis obliterans. Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center.
12.Pendergrass, Stephanie M. “Method development for the determination of diacetyl and acetoin at a microwave popcorn plant.” Environmental science & technology 38, no. 3 (2004): 858-861.
13.you Know, Did. “Better Health.” (2015).

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.

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