When you enter a movie theater and the distinct, buttery aroma of popcorn comes wafting through the air, it’s enough to make your mouth water. Although it smells delicious, those buttery fumes may be harming your health. Accumulating evidence suggests that microwave popcorn—in spite of its reputation as a healthy snack—contains a number of troublesome carcinogens and toxic chemicals.
“We think microwave popcorn is one of the healthiest snack foods available because it’s low in calories,” says Vani Hari, an organic living expert, food activist and founder of FoodBabe.com. “But in reality, there are a number of frightening ingredients in microwave popcorn.”
One such ingredient is diacetyl, a butter-flavoring agent found in manufactured popcorns, baked goods and candies. A 2012 study from the Chemical Research in Toxicology found that diacetyl (DA) may trigger Alzheimer’s disease by exacerbating the buildup of damaging proteins in the human brain.
What’s more, the compound has been linked to lung damage in occupational factory workers. When large amounts of diacetyl vapors are inhaled, it can lead to a rare, debilitating and often-fatal respiratory condition called bronchilitis obliterans, also known as “popcorn workers’ lung.”
“If you translate that, it means that it literally obliterates the bronchial passages,” explains Celeste Monforton DrPH, MPH, one of the authors of a provocative case study on the prevalence of popcorn workers’ lung.
Since 2007, at the behest of consumers, many major popcorn manufacturers—including Orville Redenbacher, Act II, Pop Secret and Jolly Time—removed diaceytl from their microwave popcorn formulas.
Some experts have raised concern over another chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, which is used to line microwave bags to make them more fire-resistant. The same synthetic chemical found in Teflon pots and pans, PFOA is dangerous because it can persist in the environment and in the human body for long periods of time. It has been labeled a “likely carcinogen” by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
“PFOA, when heated, has been linked to infertility, cancer and other diseases in lab animals,” Vani says. “There haven’t been long-term studies on humans regarding PFOA, but it’s clear that we don’t want to be eating this crazy chemical.”
Bottom line? In moderation, microwave popcorn likely does not pose a substantial health risk. But we should still consider the freaky chemicals in our foods and seek healthier alternatives whenever possible. “As we know with most exposures to hazardous materials, ‘the dose makes the poison.’ For many compounds, the more exposure you have, the higher risk of adverse effects you have,” says Celeste.
In its unadulterated form, popcorn is a superfood, chock-full of healthful whole grains, fiber and polyphenols. If you’re hankering for some popcorn, your best bet is to ditch the chemical-laden microwave bags and make popcorn the healthy, old-fashioned way: On your stovetop.
Vani recommends purchasing organic popping kernels and popping them in a stainless steel pot. “This way, you’re not dealing with controversial materials. Plus, making it yourself means you can control all of the ingredients,” she says. “I usually use coconut oil for popping and sprinkle it with some sea salt.”
It’s a win win: You can pop your popcorn and eat it, too—sans the sketchy chemicals and additives. Because, let’s be honest, what’s a movie without a big tub of popcorn?