It’s no secret that movie nights and popcorn go together like peas and carrots. So, whether you are watching the entire first season of Westworld solo or have a friend over for some Netflix action, popcorn is the first snack to hit your bowl. But, we’ve got some news for you.
As convenient as it is to let a kitchen appliance do all the work for you, microwave popcorn is a health bomb in disguise. So, next time you reach out for the store-bought brown bag, remember that “popcorn lung”(1) is a real thing, and it’s actually scarier than it sounds. Wanna know more? Well, here’s the scoop.
Preventing grease from soaking a bag wet is no easy task. That’s why microwave popcorn companies use a variety of moisture-resistant substances(2) to line the inside of the bags and keep them from falling apart while cooking and afterward. The only problem with this approach? Some of these substances are pure chemicals which means they are highly toxic to the human body.
The most noteworthy of these substances include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), and perfluoroalkyl, all of which are harmless at normal temperatures but extremely toxic once heated. That means that as soon as you push the START button, the chemicals migrate to your food and infuse it with their harmful particles.
From there, the toxins -and especially PFOA(3)- reach vital organs and cause a variety of health issues such as thyroid imbalance, decreased immunity and liver cancer. Besides that, the carcinogenic substance is also linked to high cholesterol. So, you get the point.
Let’s be honest: We all take a deep breath to enjoy the comforting, buttery smell of popped corn once it’s fresh out of the microwave. But, according to research(4), this habit is not as innocent as we thought. Butter flavorings, which are used to enhance the taste of microwave popcorn, contain hefty amounts of diacetyl. While the FDA classifies this substance as “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS), it’s actually quite harmful to inhale, especially once heated.
That occurs because the diacetyl-laden vapors(5) react with the cells lining your airway, causing them to function less efficiently. As a result, inhaling generous amounts of the chemical more often than you should induce several respiratory issues which often replicate the ones caused by obliterative bronchiolitis.
But, microwave popcorn and its relation to lung disease don’t end there. During a more recent study(6), researchers found that people working at microwave popcorn plants tend to come down with serious health issues, from skin and eye irritation to having trouble breathing. It turns out that diacetyl is behind this mess, and all it takes for the workers to get back to normal is to reduce their exposure to butter-flavoring chemicals.
Last but not least, diacetyl, a.k.a. the butter flavor additive found in microwave popcorn is linked to Alzheimer’s disease(7). The chemical inhibits some of the brain’s detoxification processes, causing toxins to build up and weakening your cognitive clarity.
After a massive backlash, many microwave popcorn companies decided to replace diacetyl with other (perhaps healthier) flavorings. But, their efforts are fruitless so far. In fact, according to researchers(8), diacetyl substitutes (see: 2,3-pentanedione, 2,3-hexanedione, 3,4-hexanedione and 2,3-heptanedione) feature a similar chemical structure to the original substance, posing the same health risks. That means that the said substitutes may be as dangerous as the real deal.
Microwave popcorn is also heavily processed. From additives and preservatives to heaps of sodium and butter, the puffy snack is coated with various hard-to-pronounce substances which are as suspicious as they sound. Just think that half a cup(9) of the delicious bite contains about 770 mg of sodium (yikes!), 30 grams of fat and ups your daily energy intake by 530 calories. That should be the calorie count of a medium-sized meal, not a handful of snacks.
But, that’s not the worst part. Βecause of the way it’s packaged, microwave popcorn is easy to overeat. As a result, you can polish off several servings in one go without even realizing. To be exact, the average bag of microwave popcorn contains about 10 servings of the stuff so you can imagine just how quickly the calories pile up.
Your Action Plan
Don’t get us wrong; we love homemade, air popped corn kernels and we firmly believe that they can be one of the healthiest snacks out there. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for the pre-packaged, microwave variety. The stuff is packed with bad-for-you ingredients such as carcinogenic chemicals and fattening flavorings, which are bound to affect your health down the line, especially if you consume the snack on a regular basis.
So, your best chance at scoring a batch of healthy (or at least, healthy-ish) popcorn is to prep it yourself using an air popper or one of these cooking oils. Then, add your favorite toppings or seasonings, and you’ve got yourself a tasty and -most importantly- toxin-free batch of popcorn.