Why You Should Avoid Butter-Flavored Microwave Popcorn

Image Credit: Kerry J / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Avoid Butter-Flavored Microwave Popcorn

What does chemical warfare and microwave popcorn have in common? The poison gas phosgene, first used extensively as a chemical warfare agent during World War I, can cause a horrific lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans. Bronchiolitis obliterans causes our small airways (bronchioles) to become obliterated, a generally irreversible and fatal condition that may also be caused by butter-flavored microwave popcorn.

I’ve warned previously about diacetyl, the artificial butter flavoring being linked to a condition known as “popcorn lung,” where workers who had been exposed to diacetyl started dying. It turns out that the industry knew about the dangers for decades, but covered it up. Even when the industry admitted workers were dying, they swore the chemical was safe for consumers—that it was only an occupational health hazard.  Orville Redenbacher continued to have ads telling consumers to breathe deeply.

I quipped in my video Is Artificial Butter Flavor Harmful? that any ingredient requiring the use of a gas mask is probably not something we want to feed our family. I wanted to err on the side of caution and I’m glad I did.

In my video, Butter-Flavored Microwave Popcorn or Breathing, I profile a series of cases of butter-flavored microwave popcorn consumers developing bronchiolitis obliterans:

  • A 47-year-old woman who consumed three to five bags a day and now can’t even walk without getting out of breath. She’s awaiting a lung transplant.
  • A 56-year-old man ate two to three bags a day before he started to cough up blood. His doctor alerted the FDA, but it’s still on the market.
  • A third ate one to two bags a day and she ended up with lungs so scarred they had what’s called “honeycombing” and patches with the appearance of ground glass.

The chemical is found in real butter, too, but it’s heavily concentrated when added as a flavoring. Tragically, it remains on store shelves and legal to this day. The regulation of health hazards from food additives has simply “fallen between the regulatory and health surveillance cracks,” the authors of the case series lament. They recommend a series of steps to protect consumers, such as allowing the bag to cool completely before opening (but who wants cold popcorn?) and then opening in a well-ventilated area away from the face. One solution they didn’t mention that would also eliminate the risk of lung disease? Don’t buy it.

To understand how this could have happened you have to see my video Who Determines if Food Additives are Safe?

What else can we do to protect our lungs?

Meat safety is another example of regulatory breakdown. See, for example, Drug Residues in Meat, Deadly But Not Illegal and Past the Age of Miracles.

What about food dyes? See Are Artificial Colors Bad for You? and Treating ADHD Without Stimulants.

Anyone have any good recipes for making air-popped popcorn delicious? I spritz with some Bragg’s and apple cider vinegar, and then sprinkle on chlorella and nutritional yeast.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Discuss

Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.


16 responses to “Avoid Butter-Flavored Microwave Popcorn

Comment Etiquette

On NutritionFacts.org, you'll find a vibrant community of nutrition enthusiasts, health professionals, and many knowledgeable users seeking to discover the healthiest diet to eat for themselves and their families. As always, our goal is to foster conversations that are insightful, engaging, and most of all, helpful – from the nutrition beginners to the experts in our community.

To do this we need your help, so here are some basic guidelines to get you started.

The Short List

To help maintain and foster a welcoming atmosphere in our comments, please refrain from rude comments, name-calling, and responding to posts that break the rules (see our full Community Guidelines for more details). We will remove any posts in violation of our rules when we see it, which will, unfortunately, include any nicer comments that may have been made in response.

Be respectful and help out our staff and volunteer health supporters by actively not replying to comments that are breaking the rules. Instead, please flag or report them by submitting a ticket to our help desk. NutritionFacts.org is made up of an incredible staff and many dedicated volunteers that work hard to ensure that the comments section runs smoothly and we spend a great deal of time reading comments from our community members.

Have a correction or suggestion for video or blog? Please contact us to let us know. Submitting a correction this way will result in a quicker fix than commenting on a thread with a suggestion or correction.

View the Full Community Guidelines

  1. Microwave popcorn is convenient and people are not aware of the high price they pay with their health for that convenience. It should be sold with a warning label. Popcorn is my favorite snack. I air-pop and used to spritz with olive oil and salt, but now I am using lemon juice and nutritional yeast or spices.

  2. Not only would I never use a microwave oven, I wouldn’t eat a product with the word “microwave” associated with it. If it’s popcorn you want, crank it out the old-fashioned way. That’s how I used to do it — and then I’d drizzle lots of (real!) melted butter all over it. Too much, most of the time, but it smelled and tasted so good. :-)

  3. I was wondering. Having gone vegan at age 38, are there any particular techniques or tips to reverse the damage of 38 years of eating the meat-rich SAD diet? I try to eat as whole foods based as possible, although I still consume some processed foods which I consider relatively benign (tahini, hummus, the occasional tofu sausage or burger).

  4. We need a strong regulatory system which should punish severely any industry that sell products that harms consumers. It seems our government is not much concerned about public health. We need to elect people who protect the public from abusive industries….In some countries they hang people who willfully harm the public. In the US, they are deemed job creators and can literally get away with murder. WHY?

  5. Is air-popped popcorn a “super snack?”

    Air-popped (no oil) popcorn contains only 31 calories per cup. A cup of popcorn also contains 1.2 grams of fiber and less than 1 gram of fat. Popcorn is gluten-free and contains higher levels of antioxidant polyphenols than other whole-grain foods, fruits or vegetables. Also, popcorn is a 100 percent unprocessed whole grain. Any reasons why we shouldn’t eat air-popped popcorn with a healthful spice topping?

  6. Does anyone know if Orville Redenbacher still has the phasogene capability in its microwave popcorn? I have quite a bit in my cupboard and before I tossed it, I wanted to know if the popcorn lung was still a problem or if the butter flavor issue has been corrected.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This