Fact or Myth: Diacetyl Popcorn – Could “Butter Flavoring” Pose A Health Danger?

This is a Fact.

Enjoying a bag of popcorn is a common American pastime, as evidenced by the 3 billion popcorn bags sold every year. Unfortunately, the more than $100 million dollars paid in damages to workers and consumers who have fallen ill due to lethal chemicals lurking in the snack suggests that this pastime comes with a heady health price.

The danger lies not so much in the popcorn itself, but in the delicious popcorn scent so many people love to inhale. Freshly popped popcorn actually puts off a toxic and lethal gas when heated at high temperatures. Diacetyl popcorn

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the aromatic steam contains nearly 4-dozen chemicals – produced by everything from the buttery flavorings to the ink and glue on the bags.

One such chemical, diacetyl (an ingredient found in the butter flavoring used in microwave popcorn), is a known poison. You may have heard about this chemical, and rejoiced in 2007 when popcorn manufacturers launched a series of ad campaigns claiming that the hazardous toxin had been removed and replaced with “newer, better, safer butter substitutes.”

Several government health investigators have exposed these false claims, warning that these new butter substitutes are just as toxic as the original butter flavorings containing diacetyl.

Diacetyl Popcorn Substitutes are Merely Diacetyl in Disguise

Citing competition, popcorn companies refuse to say exactly what they are currently using to enhance their popcorn with buttery goodness.

Scientists and flavorists have indicated that it is clearly butter starter distillates and trimmers. These substitutes, which are deceptively considered “natural materials,” are just as toxic: Butter starter distillates contain diacetyl and trimmers release high concentrations of diacetyl when heated.

John Hallagan, general counsel for the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, says, “We’ve been very clear to flavor manufacturers, food companies and regulators that these so-called substitutes are diacetyl.”

Doctors from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health caution that, “The inclusion of these alternative substances neither eliminate diacetyl popcorn nor (ensure) safety for workers.”

The Health Hazards of Diacetyl

Diacetyl is linked to a chronic and often fatal lung condition called bronchiolitis obliterans.

Hundreds of workers in popcorn factories and a handful of consumers have been diagnosed with this condition, brought on by breathing in diacetyl popcorn fumes over an extended period of time.

Dubbed “popcorn lung,” obstructive bronchiolitis destroys the small airways in the lungs, causing scarring and making breathing difficult and sometimes impossible. Workers in other factories, such as candy and potato chip factories, have also been diagnosed with popcorn lung.

The commonality? High levels of diacetyl. The lung damage and disease is extremely debilitating and in most cases, the victims’ only course of action is to receive a single, or double lung transplant. Several workers have died waiting on transplants that never came.

It isn’t only popcorn workers who are at risk. Mayo Clinic physicians diagnosed Blockbuster store manager Elaine Khoury with popcorn lung. Twice a week, for 5 years, Elaine popped 30 bags of microwave popcorn and then emptied them into a popcorn machine display in order to mimic the look of freshly popped popcorn. She is now awaiting a lung transplant.

A popcorn enthusiast was the first to report a consumer related account of popcorn lung. The Colorado man claims he made extra-buttered microwave popcorn twice a day for over 10 years. He says he loved to breath in the scent of freshly popped popcorn. The National Jewish Hospital tested diacetyl levels in his home and found concentrations only slightly lower than those found in popcorn factories.

An animal study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that when mice were exposed to air concentrations of diacetyl similar to those found in a factory, they contracted lymphocytic bronchiolitis – a precursor to the more serious condition of popcorn lung – in just 3 weeks.

Diacetyl Isn’t the Only Chemical to Fear

Dr. Daniel Morgan of the Respiratory Toxicology Group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences discovered that one of the primary components of butter substitute, an ingredient called 2,3-pentanedione, is also dangerous. Dr. Morgan warns that 2,3-pentanedione “caused the same injuries in test animals as diacetyl popcorn, and our preliminary data indicates the toxicity is close to identical.”

Microwave popcorn bags are also hazardous to your health. They contain a coating that breaks down into known carcinogens called perfluorooctanoic substances (PFOA) that have been proven to cause infertility and impair fetal development.

Indulge in Popcorn the Healthy Way

You can still enjoy an American pastime while avoiding the health complications that can arise when you microwave a bag of popcorn. Just opt for the old fashion method of popping popcorn on the stove. Melt a little natural, organic butter, sprinkle on a dab of salt if that strikes your fancy, and munch away.