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Microwave Popcorn in Bags and Cancer Risk

Do Microwave Popcorn Bags or the Additives Cause Cancer or Other Health Problems?

Popcorn as a snack food is healthy. It's a whole-grain food, high in fiber and antioxidants and,if you don't add too much butter, is a filling and relatively low-calorie snack. But microwave popcorn, sold in bags to place in your microwave in which pop, have been in the news recently and caused some concern and controversry.

Specifically, there are two issues debated:

1. Does something in the bags cause cancer?

2. Does the buttery flavor additive, Diacetyl, cause Alzheimer's or other health problems?

First, the Bag Itself

The microwave bag in which the popcorn is cooked that many experts say is the problem. The bag is lined with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and other chemicals. PFOA is also used to make Teflon and other stain- and stick-resistant materials, including pizza boxes. It's one of a number of compounds that have been established to cause liver, testicular and pancreatic cancer in animals. According to a recent study at the University of California, Los Angeles, the chemicals may also be linked to infertility in women,

In 2012, a study found that these chemicals may prevent childhood vaccinations from working properly. Children who had higher concentrations of the chemicals in their blood had a lower level of protection against some childhood diseases for which they had been vaccinated.

When you microwave the popcorn, the chemicals in the bag vaporize, and if you are lose to it, become inhaled and enter our bloodstream according to Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group. "They stay in your body for years and accumulate there," she told Prevention magazine for an article titled, "7 Foods That Should Never Cross Your Lips."

PFOA is so pervasive that it has been detectable in the blood of 95 percent of Americans.

Next, the Buttery Flavoring, or Diacetyl

Diacetyl, or 2,3 butanedione, is a naturally occurring chemical that is produced as a byproduct of yeast during the fermentation process. It is naturally found in different oils, butter, wine, beer, vinegar and coffee. It gives butter its buttery taste, lends a creaminess to certain foods, and gives wine and beer a discernible "slipperiness," known to certain brands or types.

Diacetyl is used in a wide variety of food products. It is best known as a flavoring in buttered popcorn, particularly, microwave buttered popcorn. It is also used to both flavor and affect the creaminess of some dairy products including sour cream and cottage cheese, as

Dr. Weil There are two safety issues involving the chemicals added into many brands of microwave popcorn. The first stems from the use of diacetyl in artificial butter flavor. Diacetyl has been linked to a rare type of lung disease, bronchiolitis obliterans, also called "popcorn worker's lung" because it has been seen primarily in workers at microwave popcorn factories. This disease destroys the lungs and can be cured only by a lung transplant. Diacetyl appears to damage lungs when it is repeatedly inhaled in vaporized form; one case involved a consumer who ate two bags of extra-butter-flavored microwave popcorn daily for more than 10 years and reported that he habitually inhaled the buttery fumes as he opened the bags.

Most manufacturers have removed diaceytl from their products, but there are some allegations in news reports that the ingredient now used to provide the butter flavor is just another version of the same chemical. Government scientists have been quoted as saying that the new "diacetyl free" microwave popcorn poses the same danger as the old stuff. But here the greatest hazard is still to workers in the popcorn factories, not consumers. Diacetyl does its damage when inhaled, not when it is eaten.

The other safety issue has to do with the chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as C8), used in the lining of microwave popcorn bags. PFOA is also used to make Teflon and other stain-and stick-resistant materials including pizza boxes. In June 2005, a scientific advisory panel to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified PFOA as a "likely carcinogen" but drew no conclusions as to whether products made with it pose a cancer risk to humans. However, animal studies have identified four types of tumors in rats and mice exposed to PFOA.

In a 2009 agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, eight U.S. companies, including DuPont, agreed to remove all PFOAs from their products (excluding Teflon) by 2015 and to reduce manufacturing emissions by 95 percent as of this year (2010). While scientific studies have not established a link between microwave popcorn bags and other products containing trace amounts of PFOA to increases in cancer in humans, the chemical has been shown to cause cancer and birth defects in animals, and it is so pervasive that it's detectable in the blood of 95 percent of Americans.

Hundreds of factory workers have developed a condition called "popcorn lung," also known by the medical name bronchiolitis obliterans. The condition is caused by inhalation of diacetyl fumes, which cause scarring in the lungs. Sufferers of popcorn lung have difficulty exhaling, and when severe, the condition can be fatal. In many cases of severe bronchiolitis obliterans, only a lung transplant will save a patient's life. Some former popcorn factory workers died while waiting for transplants.
In September 2007, the murmurs of concern surrounding microwave popcorn became louder as some began to wonder whether consumers were in danger as well. The publicity, caused in part by a suspected case of popcorn lung in a consumer, led four major popcorn makers to announce that they planned to drop diacetyl. The companies -- Weaver Popcorn Co., ConAgra Foods Inc., American Popcorn Company and General Mills Inc. -- had, as of early September, phased out use of the chemical or claimed they would within a year.

Links to Alzheimer's

This comes from an artificial flavoring called diacetyl, which is a natural byproduct of fermentation found in butter, beer and vinegar... and also a chemical made synthetically by food companies because it gives foods that irresistible buttery flavor and aroma.

Many companies who manufacture microwave popcorn have already stopped using the synthetic diacetyl because it's been linked to lung damage in people who work in their factories.

But now a new study at the University of Minnesota shows that diacetyl is not only a risk to workers' lungs... it may also pose a risk to your brain.

Microwave Popcorn Chemical Linked to Alzheimer's Disease

Researchers conducting test-tube studies revealed that diacetyl has several concerning properties for brain health. Not only can it pass through the blood-brain barrier, which is intended to help keep toxins out of your brain, but it can also cause brain proteins to misfold into the Alzheimer's-linked form known as beta amyloid. It also inhibits mechanisms that help to naturally clear the dangerous beta amyloid from your brain.

How to know if your popcoorn is safe?

It's not known at this time whether eating diacetyl-containing foods (it's used not only in microwave popcorn but also in other snack foods, baked goods, pet foods, some fast foods and other food products) increases your risk of Alzheimer's, but the finding that it may contribute to brain plaques linked to Alzheimer's at very low concentrations is concerning, to say the least.
Aug. 8, 2012 -- The flavorant that adds buttery taste to foods and a smooth feel to beverages may also trigger Alzheimer's disease, new studies suggest.

The flavorant, diacetyl, already is linked to lung damage in people who work in microwave popcorn factories. This led many microwave popcorn makers to stop using diacetyl in their products. But now other workers exposed to diacetyl -- and possibly consumers as well -- may face another scary risk.

University of Minnesota drug-design expert Robert Vince, PhD, and colleagues find that diacetyl causes brain proteins to misfold into the Alzheimer's-linked form called beta amyloid. Moreover, the popcorn butter flavorant can pass through the blood-brain barrier and can inhibit the brain's natural amyloid-clearing mechanisms.

"Whether toxic levels of diacetyl are achieved in various body compartments upon mere (over) consumption of diacetyl-containing food substances is an unanswered but an important question," Vince and colleagues note.

. Even if Watson had known that the "inhalation of butter flavoring chemical mixtures, including diacetyl, has been associated with severe obstructive lung disease popularly known as 'popcorn lung,'" he may well have inhaled deeply anyway because the popcorn labels almost certainly did not list diacetyl as an ingredient, never mind contain any warnings.

On a recent investigative trip to my local grocery store I did not find a single butter-flavored brand of microwave popcorn that listed diacetyl as a flavoring ingredient. (See photos.) The labels read simply: "natural and artificial flavoring." (ConAgra's labeling did indicate that its popcorn contained no diacetyl flavoring, but it failed, however, to specify what it used instead.)

Popcorn labeling does not generally include all the many chemicals that go into the flavoring. And that is too bad, recent research suggests.
One reason diacetyl is missing from popcorn labels is that listing such ingredients is not a requirement. And the Food and Drug Administration, in its capacity as an overseer of food safety, considers diacetyl to be a food substance "generally recognized as safe." Now, perhaps diacetyl has escaped FDA regulation because its effects come from respiration (not ingestion,) or because the FDA's safety finding was published in 1980, decades before popcorn lung was identified. Since more recent scientific findings on the chemical have come to light the FDA has been asked about revoking the safety finding. Recent correspondence with the FDA indicates that, at the very least, a new review is underway:

We also intend to address the issue of diacetyl-containing substitutes in our response. Although it is highly unusual for the FDA to contemplate food ingredient regulation on the basis of inhalation, we have not ruled out any regulatory option.

What to do

A group of CDC experts commenting on a blog post they wrote on "Diacetyl and Food Flavorings" has the following advice:

"Currently, even though there is little to suggest significant risk to normal consumers, a sensible precautionary approach is appropriate. Consumers could take simple precautions to minimize the amount of diacetyl and other chemicals that they breathe... the popped bags should be allowed to cool before they are opened, which will also decrease exposure to vapors."

TheGreenGrok's Simple Microwave Popcorn Recipe: Bag the Bag
But here's a better (imo), buttery solution that avoids all the problems associated with toxins (such as PFOA and BPA as well as diacetyl) lurking around microwave popcorn.

Place a covered glass bowl loaded with a layer of popcorn moistened by cooking oil into the microwave for about six and a half minutes on high. (If you try this, be careful retrieving the bowl from the microwave -- it can be very hot.) Add real butter, if so desired. Some tips: I use an inverted dinner plate to cover the popcorn bowl and I like to melt my butter before popping the corn by zapping it in the microwave for 45 seconds on medium power. And here's my new wrinkle: adding salt with the oil before popping to cook in that salty flavor.


Microwave Popcorn's Health Problem: It's In The Bag
03/22/2012 by Candy Sagon |

Buttered Popcorn Flavoring Linked to Alzheimer's
Diacetyl in Butter Flavoring, Beverages May Build Brain Plaque

What is Diacetyl?

Buttered Popcorn Flavoring Linked to Alzheimer's Dr. Mercola

Diacetyl In Buttered Popcorn

Flavorings-Related Lung Disease https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/flavoringlung/
In 2000, NIOSH conducted an investigation of exposures at a microwave popcorn manufacturing plant in Missouri. Public health officials contacted NIOSH because a cluster of former employees of the facility had developed a rare lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans. The majority of employees diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans had been exposed to mixtures of butter flavoring chemicals. Evaluations of employees working in the plant revealed high rates of both respiratory symptoms and abnormal lung function.1 The investigation concluded that there was "a risk for occupational lung disease in workers with inhalation exposure to butter flavoring chemicals".2

Microwave Popcorn Threat?

This page was updated on 16-Jul-2019