Popcorn is an American obsession. According to the Popcorn Board, we consume 16 billion quarts of popcorn every year – an astounding 51 quarts per person! But beware: the latest research suggests potentially great health risks with popcorn consumption, depending on how you consume it.
The problem is not with popcorn itself – a fairly healthy snack food in its most basic form. It is a natural whole grain, after all. In fact, popcorn is discussed on the nonprofit The World’s Healthiest Foods site as, if not super-healthy, at least fundamentally not bad for you. And the popcorn’s hull is a rich source of the antioxidant polyphenols, known to prevent damage to cells. But popcorn consumption does have a few inherent risks, such as:
But the two most common popcorn health risks are both related to the way that most popcorn today is prepared:
The first popcorn risk is likely no surprise to you; the risks of using gobs of table salt, butter or oil drenching, or sugary coatings (such as caramel popcorn) are well known. But the second and most insidious risk is the coating and ingredients inside those delightfully convenient microwavable bags. Inside popcorn bags, you get not just corn kernels but a whole host of additives that are capable of doing minor or serious damage to your body. Part of what makes the risk so great is the amount of microwave popcorn we consume in the U.S. A large part of popcorn’s rising popularity is the convenience of the microwave popcorn bag. Introduced into the American culture in the early ‘80s, by the end of the ‘90s, microwave popcorn represented nearly 80 percent of all the popcorn we consume. Thus, if there are health risks unique to microwave popcorn, then a great number of us are at risk.
Let’s examine each microwave popcorn risks.
Cancer and infertility risk from the microwave popcorn bag coating
Microwave popcorn bags are typically lined with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOA is the chemical used to put the slick in nonstick cookware. But, when heated, PFOA increases cancer risk and infertility.
To quote the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “PFOA is very persistent in the environment and has been found … in the blood of the general U.S. population. Studies indicate that PFOA can cause developmental and other adverse effects in laboratory animals. PFOA also appears to remain in the human body for a long time.”
These factors prompted the EPA to investigate whether PFOA might pose a risk to human health. Related research:
Lung disease from microwave popcorn flavoring
A 2002 and 2007 PubMed article both confirmed human risk from the chemical diacetyl, a common flavoring agent in microwave popcorn, that appears to increase the risk of bronchiolitis obliterans, a lung condition caused by a response to diacetyl that generates scarring of small airways and makes breathing difficult.
Though the condition was initially found in popcorn factory workers, the condition, also known as popcorn lung, has now been diagnosed in consumers who have made a habit of intentionally inhaling the smells of freshly opened, freshly popped microwave popcorn.
If you insist on using microwave popcorn:
Alternatively, you can make popcorn snacking much healthier by not using the store-bought microwave popcorn bags at all. Healthy alternatives to consider:
Using one of these alternatives, popcorn can still be a healthy family treat.
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