When it comes to snack foods like chips, nachos or even butter-drenched movie popcorn, microwave popcorn surely has to be one of the healthier choices, right?
It’s a lighter choice, and depending on the product, it can be lower in fat and sodium. However, there are some health concerns when it comes to bagged microwave popcorn, and they are important for you to know.
First, the paper and lining of microwave popcorn bags can contain perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. PFOA are a class of chemicals which have been linked to infertility in humans, and cancers of the liver, testicles and pancreas in animals.
At high heats, like in a microwave, PFOAs can vaporize and spread into the popcorn. They can also be inhaled through the steam given off from the bag if it is opened shortly after heating.
PFOAs are thought to be detectable in the blood of 95 cent of Americans. Health Canada’s website notes they have a risk management strategy in place for reducing or eliminating this chemical and working with other countries to encourage the reduction and eventual elimination of PFOAs worldwide. (As a side note, PFOAs can be found in teflon cooking pans, too.)
The second issue with bagged microwave popcorn is the butter flavour. It’s not usually from natural butter. Rather, in the past, manufacturers have used a chemical called diacetyl to create that buttery flavour and delicious smell of microwave popcorn.
Diacetyl is considered harmless when eaten (it’s found naturally in many foods and beverages like beer, coffee and Chardonnay), but it becomes toxic when vaporized. In 2012, a study from the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology found the chemical induced plaque formation, similar to that seen in Alzheimer’s disease. This same chemical has been linked to respiratory problems with workers exposed in food flavouring factories and microwave popcorn plants, or, as in one publicized case, a man with a two-bag daily microwave popcorn habit who recently died from severe respiratory disease attributed to the vapours from popcorn bags. (He was awarded $7.5 million in a lawsuit just one day after his death.)
With all this publicity, in the past couple of years, many popcorn makers have publicly made it known they were taking steps to eliminate diacetyl from their product. The replacement, 2,3-pentanedione (PD), imparts a similar flavour and aroma of butter. Similarly to diacetyl, this buttery smelling chemical is now known to also be a respiratory hazard.
What’s a popcorn lover to do?
If you are keen on simplicity, make sure the bagged popcorn you buy has no added ingredients. Second, wait until the bag is cool before opening (vapours will condense), and open the bag under a stovetop exhaust fan.
When it comes to decreasing your exposure to unwanted chemicals, making your own popcorn is the way to go. Whether you use the stove top, microwave or a hot air popper specially designed for popcorn, it really doesn’t matter.
Try this recipe from bestselling cookbook author Mark Bittman:
In a small glass container, or a brown paper lunch bag, combine 1/4 cup popping corn with 1/4 teaspoon salt and fold the top of the bag over a couple of times. Microwave on high for two to three minutes, until there are four or five seconds between pops. Open the bag or container carefully, because steam will have built up. Toss with your seasonings and a drizzle of butter or olive oil or serve as is. This will make two-four servings.
If you are looking to save a few calories, nix the traditional butter. Convenient popcorn flavour shakers come with a lot of unwanted sodium, too. Instead, try some of the following to jazz up your beloved movie-watching dish: chopped fresh herbs, black pepper, chili powder, curry powder, toasted sesame seeds, cayenne or red chilli flakes, grated parmesan cheese, finely ground nuts, shredded, unsweetened coconut or chopped dried fruit.
Amanda O’Brien is a registered dietitian in St. John’s. Contact her through the