Is Microwave Popcorn Bad for You?

So, Matt: I love popcorn, so, of course, I’m lazy enough to prefer microwave popcorn, since all you have to do is close the door and punch the “Popcorn” button. I have friends who flip out when I eat it — maybe three or four times a week. I try not to have any when they’re around. They say it’s got all kinds of chemicals in it from the package and I’m going to die some horrible death from a fatal toxic popcorn overdose. I need facts to feed them along with a little popcorn the next time they’re here so they’ll stop nagging me. Thanks. — So Buttery, via email

Two minutes after microwave popcorn went on the market 50 years ago, the Don’tEatIt! crowd sent up screeches of horror, and they’ve been bleating ever since. “It’s deadly! It’s full of chemicals! It will make you infertile and leave you gasping for air!” was the mantra. “Mmmmmmmmm! Butter! Popcorn! Lo-cal! Smelly goodness!” we all said so loudly we didn’t even hear the Don’tEatIt!s. Even if we had heard them, we’d ignore them anyway. We’re sick of them telling us what to eat and what not to eat and changing their minds all the time. Right, Buttery? The siren scent of zapped corn is more than we can resist. Besides, everybody knows popcorn is a healthy snack.

No matter how much we ignore them, the Don’tEatIt!s have not let up. And, you know, they’re pretty much right. Sorry, Buttery. I can’t come to your house and share a bag o’ bliss, throwing kernels at your friends and calling them hysterics. Microwave popcorn has some real-life bad stuff in it (though manufacturers say they’re being phased out or are gone completely in some cases).

Since micropopped corn has to be an enticing, complete snack when the bag’s opened (corn, universally loved popcorn smell, and flavorings), it needs flavor and smell boosters. Diacetyl, a natural chemical compound found in butter, was the corporate solution. Add it to the bag and consumers will faint with desire. Well, turns out there was some fainting going on. But it was in the microcorn factories. Workers were coming down with impaired lung function from exposure to the vapors of diacetyl. It eventually came to be called popcorn lung, and there was even one case in the corn-loving public. We’ll have to admit, this guy took things to prolonged extremes, but he did develop popcorn lung. Every day for ten years, he ate two bags of corn and stuck his face in the freshly opened bag every time. He loved the smell, you see, but it maximized the vaporized diacetyl he was exposed to. Eventually he was gasping for air. Check labels, but diacetyl should be gone from most major manufacturers’ products.

So, you think, I must be through. How much worse can our beloved microwaved popcorn be? A little bit worse, it turns out. And its name is PFOA, perfluorooctinoic acid. You’ll note that the microbag is full of oils to get the pop going. So the bag, of course, needs an oil-proof lining, and a little fire resistance would be a good idea, too. Enter flurotelomers, the perfect solution. Unfortunately, at high temperatures, they break down into PFOA, which is a suspected carcinogen and might even contribute to infertility. PFOA vaporizes and is also absorbed into the corn we eat. Over the years it accumulates and shows up in blood tests at increasingly higher levels. Again, manufacturers are looking for substitutes to flurotelomers but probably won’t have them out entirely until 2015.

All this is not just Don’tEatIt!s’ imaginations. These results come from university studies of microwave popcorn. So, what to do, what to do? The Luddite suggestion, of course, is to go back to popping corn in a pan with vegetable oil. Or get an air popper. More realistically — that is, easier and faster — one dietician says to take a paper bag, throw in some olive or peanut oil (something healthy), then a bunch of kernels, seal the bag up really tightly, throw it in the micro, and zap away. You might put the bag on a flat dish to cut down on the oil slick in the machine and watch for smoke. Happy snacking, Buttery!

Hey: Do goldfish blink? — Maria, Escondido

Now, Maria, you haven’t been doing that Three Stooges eye-poke thing with your pet, have you? Tsk-tsk. Fish don’t have eyelids. No eyelids, no blinking. To make up for that, though, nature gave goldfish hundreds and hundreds of taste buds. And a wonderful sense of the absurd.

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This article contains erroneous information on PFOA, the processing aide used in the manufacturing of some fluoropolymers. PFOA is not used to greaseproof microwave containers. In some products that have been used in these applications, PFOA may occur at trace levels as an unintended byproduct.

No human health effects are known to be caused by PFOA, but because very low levels of this chemical have been found in the environment and in the blood of the general population, industry is working to find alternative products. Many companies have already commercialized products that are not made with PFOA and cannot break down to PFOA.

To quote EPA, “The information that EPA has available does not indicate that the routine use of consumer products poses a concern. At present, there are no steps that EPA recommends that consumers take to reduce exposures to PFOA.”

John Heinze, Ph.D. Fluoropolymer Products Information Center

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