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.

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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.


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