What chemicals are on your popcorn?
For some of us, there's no snack yummier, or easier to prepare, than a big bowl of buttery popcorn. It's especially quick and easy when we can zap one of those little prepared packages in the microwave, and be rewarded in only minutes with that great buttery aroma. That buttery smell and taste, however, doesn't come from butter. It's a function of the chemical diacetyl, a rather special food additive.
Diacetyl may not be special in being only one of the 3,000 or more direct additives that appear in processed foods, but it's unique in another way. In having its own disease named after it. The lung condition, Diacetyl Induced Bronchiolitis Obliterans, is called "Popcorn Worker's Lung" due to the large number of microwave popcorn factory workers who have developed the respiratory illness.
Since 2004, millions in damages have been awarded to popcorn workers who became sick from inhaling diacetyl fumes, but the disease can occur in any industry working with the chemical. The FDA still considers diacetyl a GRAS (generally recognized as safe) additive. Others don't agree. The United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) has suggested that diacetyl, when used in artificial butter flavoring (as used in many consumer foods), may be hazardous when heated and inhaled over a long period. The CDC has issued a safety alert for workers in factories that use diacetyl, and notes that toxicology studies have shown that vapors from heated butter flavorings can cause damage to airways in animals.
California has legislation pending to ban diacetyl outright. Working in a popcorn factory would seem to be hazardous to your health, but apparently eating too much of that yummy, and very convenient, microwave popcorn can be dangerous, too. In September 2012 the first consumer lawsuit surrounding diacetyl awarded 7.2 million in damages to Colorado resident Wayne Watson, who had eaten two bags of microwave popcorn daily over a period of 10 years.
The European Union is taking a "wait and see approach" to the problem, pending further research, but U.S. companies are starting to voluntarily replace this ingredient in microwave popcorn. Major US manufacturers, like ConAgra and PopWeaver, have stopped using the chemical in popcorn products. Diacetyl does have some benefits. There's evidence that it works great as a mosquito repellant. I'm told that fruit flies avoid it, too. But when it comes to weighing the dangers of calories vs. chemicals, and when I want that buttery flavor on my popcorn, I'll use butter.
Dr. Baldasare lives in Orlando, FL with his beautiful wife and three children. Over the last fifteen years he has helped over 12,000 people get healthy by educating and motivating them to make better choices. He is a frequent guest speaker at the University of Central Florida and Wellness seminars. He is the author of The Great American Food Fight. For more, visit his site.© 2012 Brent Baldasare
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