April 7, 2011

Microwave Popcorn: A Health Risk?

I have to admit that even someone as neurotic as me had trouble mustering up enough concern about microwave popcorn causing cancer. And then Wayne Watson showed up.

You see, Mr. Watson really loved popcorn, I mean really, really loved the stuff. So much so that he consumed at least two bags of microwave popcorn every day for over 10 years, taking deep inhales of that yummy butter smell every time. Then in 2007 a lung specialist at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver diagnosed him with the first (and only) reported case of popcorn lung in a consumer of microwave popcorn (i.e., a non-factory worker).

So what does this mean for your next at-home movie night? Chances are you are not consuming such vast quantities of microwave popcorn (tests showed that the fume levels in Watson's home were comparable to those found in factories). And it's not the actual popcorn that can be harmful, but the chemical coating used in microwave popcorn bags – the stuff Watson was so fond of inhaling.

The major culprit was diacetyl, a chemical used to give popcorn that butter taste. An alarming number of factory workers who regularly inhaled diacetyl on the job have become disabled or have died from severe lung disease. Most popcorn manufacturers have stopped using diacetyl, but the “newer, safer, butter substitutes” aren't proving to be any safer, with some being just as toxic as what they replaced, or even newer – most are actually just another form of diacetyl.

Then you have perfluorooctanoic (PFOA), a chemical coating used in microwave popcorn bags, that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified as a “likely carcinogen.” Also, not very appetizing.

I don't know about you, but even if I know I'd never get popcorn lung just knowing about these chemicals and the harm they can inflict on people and the environment is very unappetizing indeed. But luckily for us, there is an incredibly easy and inexpensive way to avoid the chemicals in microwave popcorn. Buy a bag of kernels (less than $3 at the grocery store) and a stack of brown paper lunch bags (I found them at 50 bags for a dollar). Place a handful of kernels in the bag, fold over the opening of the bag a few times, and pop in the microwave for 2 or 3 minutes (until the popping slows down). Pour on some REAL butter (or, as I prefer, olive oil) and your favorite toppings (e.g., salt, Parmesan cheese, cinnamon and sugar, chilli powder, etc.), shake it up to distribute the flavor, and enjoy. That works out to about 8 cents a bag! If only all health concerns could be resolved so deliciously!

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