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Is Popcorn Dangerous to Your Health

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.

Isn’t popcorn actually good for you?

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:

  • Serious allergic reactions that some people experience
  • A choking hazard, especially to children age three or younger, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics
  • The risk of gastrointestinal problems for those with health conditions that require them to follow a low-residue or low-fiber diet

But the two most common popcorn health risks are both related to the way that most popcorn today is prepared:

  • Slathered after cooking in unhealthy toppings
  • Cooked in store-bought microwavable popcorn bags

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.

The dangers specifically associated with microwave popcorn

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:

  • In January 2012, the the Journal of the American Medical Association publish results of a study involving 600 children and their mothers that determined that PFOA lowered by 40 percent the the participants’ disease-fighting antibodies.
  • The Journal of Occupational Medicine reported in 1993 that factory workers exposed to the PFOA had increased cancer risks, especially liver cancer and prostate cancer.
  • A 2009 study linked PFOA exposure to delays in achieving pregnancy.

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.

  • Other common and unhealthy microwave popcorn additives found in major brands of microwave popcorn include:
  • Partially hydrogenated oils, which are linked to heart attacks, according to the CDC
  • Tertiary Butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), a preservative made from butane that has been linked to ADHD, breathing trouble, skin allergies and, in lab animals, stomach cancer
  • Propyl Gallate, used to minimize rancidity, but is linked to cancer in studies on rats and has been associated with stomach, skin, and breathing ailments.
  • What you can do to avoid microwave popcorn bag risks

    If you insist on using microwave popcorn:

    • Let the popcorn bag cool before you open it, which will remove some of the popcorn lung risk.
    • Consider buying organic popcorn, which will not have pesticide residues common to conventionally grown corn.

    Alternatively, you can make popcorn snacking much healthier by not using the store-bought microwave popcorn bags at all. Healthy alternatives to consider:

    • Make do-it-yourself microwave popcorn. Using an ordinary brown paper lunch bag, just follow this homemade microwavable how-to video’s guidance.
    • Use a popcorn air popper. Prepared this way, you’ll fill up your tummy and only take in 30 calories for a cup’s worth.
    • Employ more traditional corn popping techniques, either using a popcorn popper machine or simply with a pan on your stovetop. Use a healthier oil, such as olive oil or coconut oil, a modicum of salt, and you’ll know your popcorn has no risky secret ingredients.

    Using one of these alternatives, popcorn can still be a healthy family treat.

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