Is Microwave Popcorn Dangerous For Cancer And Lung Disease?


According to several scientific studies, flavoring agents such as diacetyl and other chemicals used in microwave popcorn bags have been deemed unsafe due to potential health risks, such as permanent lung damage.

As a result, diacetyl and other substances were phased out from popcorn production and microwave oven packaging between 2002 and 2015. However, consumers should be aware that certain chemicals are still being used.

Get Medical Information / Jessica Olah

Is popcorn a healthy snack?

Among the most popular snacks, popcorn is considered one of the healthiest.

Three tablespoons of air-cooked yellow popcorn contains up to 120 calories.

  • Nutrients include 4 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat, 28 grams of carbohydrates, zero milligrams of cholesterol and sodium, and 5.02 grams of fiber .
  • Popcorn is a whole grain high in fiber. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), these grains have been linked to a reduced risk of diseases such as diabetes , heart disease, and cancer .

However, the AHA cautions that not all popcorn treats should be considered optimal snacks.

  • Popcorn served in a large tub can be a fat, high-calorie snack that packs 1,090 calories with a whopping 2,650 milligrams of sodium, two of the main contributors to high blood pressure that can lead to stroke and / or heart diseases.
  • Another unhealthy option is caramel popcorn, which is high in sugar and fat.

If you are in the mood for popcorn, the healthiest option is to use a lightly seasoned air popper as recommended by the AHA .

Chemicals in microwave popcorn

If you're avoiding unhealthy snacks by choosing low-fat, low-sodium treats like microwave popcorn, you may want to consider the chemicals used to coat your packaging. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these chemicals can include perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances .

These can include a subset of PFAS such as PFOA or C8, PFOS, GenX, and other chemicals found in common household nonstick products and fast food packaging (pizza, hamburgers, French fries, and microwave popcorn bags) .

The 2020 report examined microwave popcorn containers and 407 paper samples, including a cardboard food wrap used by fast food chains, coated with five common PFAS (PFOA, PFOS, perfluoronanoic acid, perfluorodecanoic acid and perfluorohexanesulfonic acid) .

They found that PFAS-coated paper products increased serum PFAS levels in people who routinely consumed popcorn in a microwave and at a fast food restaurant, compared to cooked meals prepared in grocery stores.

The data showed that 90% of grocery store products are less likely to be spoiled by PFAS from their packaging, compared to packaged or packaged fast food. This resulted in higher serum concentrations of PFAS in microwave popcorn and fast food consumers compared to those who cooked their own meals .

A 2017 study identified 46 different PFAS found in microwave popcorn bags produced in 12 European countries (Spain, France, Austria, Netherlands, Hungary, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Czech Republic, Sweden, United Kingdom, Portugal). ). Brazil and the United States) and two Asian countries (China and India) from 2015 to 2016 .

The EPA reports that some PFAS have been phased out and are no longer manufactured in the United States. However, they are still produced in other countries and continue to appear in a number of consumer products imported into the United States .

What's in the package?

Per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are synthetic chemical compounds found in various food packaging. PFASs are currently used in a wide variety of common products, from fire fighting foams to paints and household non-stick products. They are also used in fast food containers and microwave popcorn bags that are resistant to water and grease .

There are around 4,700 PFAS available on the world market. Exposure to chemicals can occur through direct contact with food, diet, drinking water, air, and dust. PFAS are immune to high temperatures and do not break down easily in the environment or in the human body. They can accumulate over time .

What is lung popcorn?

Obliterative bronchiolitis (popcorn lung) is a condition in which the air sacs in the lungs thicken and narrow and narrow the airways. It causes a variety of symptoms (coughing, wheezing , and shortness of breath) that are similar to those of a chronic illness. obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) . Popcorn from the lungs is a rare chronic disease that worsens over time and eventually leads to respiratory failure.

A popcorn lung came to public attention in 2000 when health authorities learned that workers at a microwave popcorn plant in Missouri inhaled excessive and concentrated amounts of diacetyl, a flavoring oil, and were later diagnosed with irreversible lung disease.

A 2012 study featured three case studies of the effects of diacetyl with multiple daily servings of microwave popcorn. Researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have found that long-term exposure to diacetyl is directly related to decreased lung capacity .


Known for its oily aroma and taste, diacetyl is a naturally occurring compound found in foods such as butter, yogurt, various cheeses, and sour cream. It is also added to many foods, including microwave popcorn.

In a 2015 report, the FDA considers diacetyl to be "generally recognized as safe (GRAS)," as evidenced by centuries of human exposure to its natural presence in food without serious health consequences . Toxicology studies have shown that heated oil flavoring damages the cells lining the airways of mice.

In the case of microwave popcorn workers in the Midwest, NIOSH studies showed that blenders that worked with diacetyl and heated soybean oil for more than a year were exposed to higher levels of diacetyl vapor and experienced more severe shortness of breath than lower-cost workers. 12 months old or working elsewhere in the factory .

Perfluorinated compounds (PFC)

Like PFAS, perfluorinated compounds such as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA or C8) are used in various consumer products, including waterproof fabrics, nonstick cookware, lubricants, greasy and waterproof coatings for food packaging and microwave ovens. . popcorn bags. And, like PFAS, these chemicals exist in the environment and are found in human blood samples .

Studies using PFOA in rats resulted in cancer of the liver , testis, and pancreas , but the human studies were not statistically significant. However, a link has emerged between serum PFOA levels and kidney and testicular cancer in workers at chemical plants that produce PFOA, as well as in people who live near the plant .

In 2001, residents living in the vicinity of the plant filed a class action lawsuit suing the company for groundwater contamination. Three court-appointed epidemiologists examined whether PFOA plays a role in health problems. They concluded that PFOA likely played a role in the development of health problems.

Between 2011 and 2012, four reports were presented to the court that PFOA may have been the cause of six cases of kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis , thyroid disease , hypercholesterolemia , and pregnancy-induced hypertension .

In 2002, the production and use of PFOS was phased out. US manufacturers ceased emissions and PFOA content in products at the end of 2015. Despite the phase-out and cessation of production in the US and Europe, it is unclear whether production moved to Asia .

A 2019 study analyzed seven bags of popcorn for concentrations of PFOA and PFOS and compared them to those found between 2005 and 2018. Researchers found that two bags of microwave popcorn were above the acceptable limit and the others five below the detection limit .

Get the word of drug information

By removing diacetyl and other chemicals, microwave popcorn is no longer harmful to your health. However, consumers should be aware that some substances are still used in packaging.

Also, many of the ingredients used (emulsifiers, trans fats, and artificial flavors) are not optimal for nutrition or health. If you prefer popcorn, follow the American Heart Association guidelines for its healthy version.

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