Is Microwave Popcorn Safe?

Lori Lamothe

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(Georgia Vagim/Unsplash)

For the past few years, I've had a movie night at my home on Fridays. Mostly it involves pizza and wine with a friend but sometimes I like to sit in front of the screen with a big bowl of popcorn. The only problem was that I kept reading articles about microwave popcorn causing cancer.

I'm not one to jump on the everything-gives-you-cancer bandwagon (which, as a cancer survivor, I probably should be). I decided to do a little research to figure out if there was anything to it. I did some googling and decided to start with a site called popcorn.org. Not super health-oriented but hey, they're all about popcorn, right?

According to popcorn.org, microwave popcorn is perfectly fine. Under its "Hot Issues & Myths" section there was a comforting check next to Yes for the "Is it safe?" question. Furthermore, they assured me it was FDA approved and no longer contains dangerous chemicals.

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(Popcorn.org)

This handy chart looked great--well, except the section that explains PFOAs are now in forests and polar bears, who are already dealing with a lot. But all that doesn't specifically relate to the popcorn issue.

Still, popcorn.org is all about popcorn, not medicine. I did some additional fact checking and came across this statement. Apparently, the U.S. Popcorn Board (There's a Popcorn Board? Yes, there is.) recently issued a statement on this:

Popcorn does not contain any carcinogens or GMOs. Microwave popcorn does not cause cancer. Microwave popcorn is FDA approved for consumption and likewise, microwave popcorn bags are considered safe and approved by the FDA. PFOAs are not intentionally used in or added to microwave popcorn bags; rather, if found they are incidental. PFOAs are found in almost every place in our world today including forests and polar bears. PFOA’s have been delisted by the FDA and have been removed from food packaging since January 2016.

At least I knew now that popcorn.org wasn't wrong. I decided to do a little bit more investigating, just to be on the uber-accurate side for this article. I grew up on the mantra "Question Authority," so it was going to take more than the Popcorn Board to convince me.

It's true that microwave popcorn manufacturers removed diacetyl some time ago (though it's present in some vape products). They did this because it was indeed causing issues, not for people eating the weekly bowl of popcorn, but for workers in the plants that produced the popcorn.

In the early 2000s, multiple workers were diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans. an obstructive lung disease and potentially fatal condition that came to be known as "popcorn lung." It was not the actual popcorn, or even the coating, but the butter flavoring that caused them to develop the condition.

Here is what's also true, however: manufacturers replaced the diacetyl with another similar chemical which, not too surprisingly, causes some similar types of problems. According to a few medical sites, 2,3-pentanedione may not be a hazard for the casual popcorn-eater but it isn't ideal for workers in the factories:

"The ingredient 2,3-pentanedione (PD), used to impart the flavor and aroma of butter in microwave popcorn, is a respiratory hazard that can also alter gene expression in the brain of rats."

Incidentally, the chemical is also present in vape juice. The good news is that the FDA has set the exposure level slightly higher for pentanedione than for diacetyl. In other words, it's not quite as bad for those workers and is probably okay for you.

So the butter flavoring additive is all right, but let's circle back to those PFOAs in polar bears, forests and everything else. If you eat microwave popcorn, you're no worse off when it comes to PFOAs than an animal living in arctic isolation, right? Because there are no more PFOAs in the bag lining.

It's not quite that simple.

PFAs

First, what is a PFA and how is it different than a PFOA? Short answer: it's not, really.

Rather, PFA is an umbrella term that includes two types of chemicals. Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) is a group of man-made chemicals that includes both Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOs) and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOAs). PFAs have been linked to numerous health issues, including cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, high blood pressure and increased risk of thyroid disease, to name just a few.

If you've seen the excellent movie Dark Waters you probably have some idea about this issue already. The perfluoroalkyls and polyfluoroalkyl substances developed by Dupont in the 1950s take an extremely long time to break down, which is why they were nicknamed "forever chemicals."

Before certain types of PFA chemicals, including Perfluorooctanoic Acid, were fully phased out in 2015, they were in numerous items, including nonstick cookware, stain-resistant coatings for carpets, upholstery, textiles, paints and many other common items, including microwave popcorn bags.

As mentioned above, many of these chemicals were - and still are - found in nearly all humans, as well as in animals, plants, drinking water and so on. The question is does eating the new, improved microwave popcorn raise your levels of PFAs, even if it's not going to increase your PFOA levels?

According to some studies, the answer is yes.

Research suggests that people who regularly consume microwave popcorn have markedly higher levels of PFAS in their bodies. A study published in 2019 analyzed a decade of data about the eating habits of 10,000 people, which was collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 2003 and 2014. Blood samples from the study participants were also collected. The researchers found that people who ate microwave popcorn every day over the course of a year had levels of PFAS that were up to 63% higher than average.

How does this make sense, if PFOAs have been eliminated from the bag lining?

According to the FDA, while the use of some of the more common PFAS have been banned, new versions of the chemicals have replaced them. The newer PFAS tend to have shorter chains of the carbon-fluorine bond and are eliminated more quickly from the body. If you only indulge in the random bowl of popcorn, there's no need to worry. If, on the other hand, you consume a lot of the stuff, you might think about making a change:

Considering the questions that continue to surround the safety of consuming PFAS, we think it would be reasonable to curtail the daily use of microwave popcorn. Instead, you could save it for an occasional treat. If your kids are flexible, you might switch to a different type of evening snack. Or if it has to be popcorn, you could turn the process of making stovetop popcorn into a family project. --UCLA Center for Human Nutrition

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Writer, assistant professor, former baker. I cover recipes, cold cases, history, and culture. If you have a story idea you'd like me to investigate, you can email me at lorilamothe29@gmail.com. Older cold case articles can be found on Vella and Medium.

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