Is Microwave Popcorn Safe to Eat?

Photo: Jeffry B/Flickr.

What’s a movie without popcorn? Turns out that the only reason the dynamic duo came to be was because they both rose in popularity at the same time. In the late 1800s, the portable popcorn machine was invented, about the same time as the motion picture. As movies became increasingly popular, vendors would set up shop wherever there was a crowd (even outside of a movie theater), and popcorn soon became a favorite American snack. It wasn’t until the Great Depression set in that theaters themselves started to sell popcorn, desperate to make a buck (or even a penny) and draw struggling Americans inside. Indeed, concession stands account for 40 percent of a theater’s revenue these days, and a theater wouldn’t be complete without a popcorn machine. So much so that the phenomenon created by theaters was transferred to home entertainment. A trip to Blockbuster (remember the good ol’ days of Blockbuster?) wouldn’t be complete without a box of Raisinets and some microwave popcorn.

But more recently, we’ve learned some less than mouthwatering details about the chemicals involved in the microwave popcorn manufacturing process. As it goes with many things artificial, there’s bound to be something unhealthy in there.

First, let’s talk about the popcorn itself. For years, many microwave popcorn companies used the chemical diacetyl in the manufacturing of their product to imitate butter flavor. A few years ago, studies revealed that the chemical sickened many workers in microwave popcorn plants, and even ruined the lungs of some microwave popcorn addicts, causing a disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, a disease that can come from inhaling several irritant fumes — diacetyl being one of them. The condition is so common among those who worked in popcorn manufacturing that it came to be known as “popcorn lung.” It was subsequently removed from the manufacturing process, but unfortunately, the replacements don’t seem to be any better, and with the “innocent until proven guilty” attitude of the FDA, they don’t show any signs on being banned from the market any time soon.

Another problem with microwave popcorn? The bag itself. Microwave popcorn bags are lined with PFOA, a chemical that has been linked to cancer in animals. Earlier this year, the chemical was found to have been associated with a lower vaccine response in children, making them more vulnerable to disease. And though it hasn’t been found to directly cause cancer in humans (yet), the chemical has been found in the blood of 95 percent of Americans.

So what’s a popcorn lover to do? Ditch the bag, for starters. You can make popcorn in a pot or pick up an air-popped popcorn machine for as little as $20. Or — and I know I speak blasphemy here — you could opt for a different snack to go with your movie. If you just can’t step away from the microwave, here’s a chemical-free way to make microwave popcorn yourself. It might not taste as buttery as you’re used to, but it’ll definitely help you breathe easier.