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Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

Health Risk from Butter-Flavored Popcorn

By May 21, 2014

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Did you know you can get a condition called "popcorn lung" from breathing the artificial butter flavoring from microwave popcorn? The artificial butter flavoring is a naturally-occurring chemical called diacetyl. Diacetyl causes no problems in the butter, milk, cheese, beer, and wine where it's found, but when vaporized it can cause damage to the bronchioles in the lungs, eventually deteriorating them into the serious irreversible condition called bronchiolitis obliterans. If you nuke a bag of popcorn every now and then, it's not a health concern for you, but workers in the factories producing the butter-flavored popcorn are at risk for lung damage, as are consumers who pop a couple of bags of corn daily. I would guess theater concession stand employees would also fall into this category.

So, what should you do to avoid lung damage from popcorn? You can avoid popping the butter-flavored corn and then add liquid butter flavoring after the corn has popped or if you absolutely love that flavor of corn (like me), then just don't go crazy. Enjoy it a few times a week at most.

Image: Chemical structure of diacetyl. (NEUROtiker)

How Popcorn Pops | "Butter" Means Something Different in Chemistry


May 14, 2010 at 11:24 pm
(1) Benton Jackson says:

It’s only the artificial butter flavor that’s bad for you. You can use popcorn with real butter, or plain. Both kinds are often labeled “No Diacetyl”. This has been known for awhile, long enough for makers to know that people are looking for this, so they mark them

November 30, 2011 at 12:29 pm
(2) DrDavid911 says:

It’s not just the artificial flavor that’s bad for you. Real butter is very high in cholesterol and saturated fats and together with cheese probably accounts for 25% or more of All heart attacks and strokes (combined with meat and other dairy products to equal 100% of heart attacks and strokes).

But worse yet, the companies that make popcorn that pops in bags in the microwave put small strips of aluminum in the bag to make it heat up faster to pop sooner. Thus you are probably also breathing in vaporized aluminum, a known toxin.

If you want relatively health but still delicious popcorn, one of the best ways to get it is this: 1) pop in a container in the microwave or an air popper with not additions to the kernals, 2) transfer into what you will eat out of, 3) very lightly spray with canola oil while holding your breath so you don’t breath in a lot of aerosolized oil particles, (this is done to give it stickyness), 4) sprinkle liberally with nutritional yeast (Not brewers yeast!), 5) very lightly sprinkle with cayenne pepper powder.

This will give you a delicious popcorn with a little hint of cheese flavor (from the yeast) without the anti-health benefits of real cheese, and a little zing from the red pepper. Enjoy!

May 8, 2012 at 3:15 am
(3) levelin says:

When I worked in a bakery, they had a large box of the artificial butter flavor and it would bother my asthma. I’d get that asthma cough from it. My asthma isn’t nearly as bad since not working at the bakery.

March 5, 2014 at 8:14 am
(4) Penny Duff says:

Dr. David is spouting the old line about cholesterol and heart disease. There are, however, NO studies that defi9nitively show a correlation between dietary or blood cholesterol and heart disease. The whole myth started with a study by Ansel Keys. The problem? He seriously “cherry picked” his data. Keys kept the data that supported his position and tossed the data (actually, the larger amount of data) that refuted his position. This pattern has been continued by others. The only studies that seem to show a correlation are those done by the pharmaceutical industry, which has a multi-BILLION dollar investment in selling their statin drugs to lower cholesterol. Would you trust data from such a source? In addition, there is an increasing body of evidence that the “polyunsaturate” oils are damaging. We know that canola oil, at least, is incredibly high in trans fats. FDA allows the reporting of trans fats before processing. The oil is then processed with high heat and harsh chemicals. The result is an oil that is 40% trans fats, but still legally reportable as “0″ trans fats. Finally, even cockroaches won’t eat margarine, and they eat just about everything. Scary.

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