WIN-ning Wednesday: Popcorn = Toxic Treat?

Ever wonder how microwavable popcorn doesn’t stick to the bag when popped?  Or how the heat of the microwave doesn’t cause the bag to catch fire?  Hmmmm…

For many people, these questions don’t come up as they are preparing microwavable popcorn.  It’s been a fast, convenient treat for a couple decades.  Popcorn is supposed to be healthy, isn’t it?

Concern #1: A (Non) Sticky Situation – Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)

Microwave bags are coated with chemical substances to prevent the popcorn from sticking to the bag and prevent the bag from burning or catching fire.  A chemical part of this inner coating that has received a red flag is Perfuorooctanoic Acid (PFOA).  This is a chemical related to teflon, and is known as a “pervasive” chemical.

A pervasive chemical is one that lingers in the body long after it’s exposure.  It doesn’t get detoxified very well and can hang out for weeks, months or even years in our tissue.  When something lingers in our tissues, this means it becomes part of, or held on to by, our cells.  Our cells contain DNA.  These are the types of chemicals that can affect DNA over time.  Anything that messes with DNA has the potential to injure it, which can change a healthy cell into a cancer cell.

Some researchers would argue that there is such a small exposure through microwavable popcorn, so there couldn’t possibly be a risk.  However, microwave popcorn lovers take note, there are researchers who intensively study in the cutting edge field of Environmental Medicine who would say the opposite.

From Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong Blog, an article on the health risks of microwave popcorn notes this:

Bill Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, reports that exposure to PFOA has been linked to cancer and other health risks. Eating as little as one bag of microwave popcorn a week gives you enough PFOA that it shows up on blood tests, according to Chameides.

Even if a person eats microwave popcorn occasionally, why does this matter?  The modern day human is exposed to a variety of pervasive chemicals every day – don’t let me get going on Glade air fresheners and Febreeze!!!   Over the course of months and years, we are exposed to countless amounts of chemicals through air, water and food.  PFOA may be a drop in the bucket, but put enough drops together and we can get an rainstorm.

The reality of our modern day environment is that it’s extremely polluted, and to protect my long term health I need to avoid burdening my body with chemicals that I can prevent being exposed to.

Dupont, the creator of all things non-stick, is the company that provides the manufactures of microwavable popcorn the chemicals to create the non-stick coating for their bags.  They have agreed to remove PFOA from their non-stick recipe by 2015!  Which means, we have a few years to go before it’s gone, and more than a boat load of popcorn will be eaten by people before that time.

Here’s what Dr. Andrew Wiel says about popcorn and PFOA in a web post reply to “Microwave Popcorn Threat?” from his Q & A library:

PFOA is also used to make Teflon and other stain-and stick-resistant materials including pizza boxes. In June 2005, a scientific advisory panel to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified PFOA as a “likely carcinogen” but drew no conclusions as to whether products made with it pose a cancer risk to humans. However, animal studies have identified four types of tumors in rats and mice exposed to PFOA.

In a 2009 agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, eight U.S. companies, including DuPont, agreed to remove all PFOAs from their products (excluding Teflon) by 2015 and to reduce manufacturing emissions by 95 percent as of this year (2010). While scientific studies have not established a link between microwave popcorn bags and other products containing trace amounts of PFOA to increases in cancer in humans, the chemical has been shown to cause cancer and birth defects in animals, and it is so pervasive that it’s detectable in the blood of 95 percent of Americans.

Concern #2 – (Artificial) Butter Best Forgotten – Diacetyl and Beyond

Diacetyl is the chemical used to created that delicious (fake) buttery flavour that we all know and love.  Unfortunately, it has been linked to a potentially fatal respiratory illness known as “pop corn lung.”

Yes.  I’m serious.  “Pop corn lung.”

Better known as, bronchiolitis obliterans, “pop corn lung” has affected people who regularly inhaled the aroma of the synthetic butter flavour.  Diacetyl is one of those pesky chemicals that you can’t see, and it doesn’t smell toxic (how could a buttery aroma be so bad?), but it is toxic.

Diacetyl was first linked to the development of bronchiolitis obliterans in those who worked at factories that made buttery flavouring agents.  In September 2008, the first reported case of the respiratory illness in a popcorn consumer came to light.

Diacetyl has been removed from the current artificial butter flavour, but there is STILL concern over the health impact of the ingredients for this flavouring agent.  Hey, I’ve not yet found an “artificial” food ingredient that’s actually good for us, so this is understandable.

Check out this blog post from “The Ethical Nag: Marketing Ethics for the Easily Swayed” by Carolyn Thomas which takes a witty look at microwavable popcorn, Diacetyl and the equally toxic replacement for it:

Microwave popcorn: (still) bad for you

Popcorn can be a healthy snack option when made the old fashioned way!  Ok… so I run the risk of sounding matronly, but there is an old fashioned way of popping popcorn that will result in a cleaner more wholesome snack.  Don’t worry… I listed a modern day options for all those whippersnappers out there.  🙂

1) On the stove:

*Special Note: my mom always used to make popcorn like this when I was young.  Of course, once we got that new fancy microwave back in the early 90s, there came a time when I started nagging her to buy microwave popcorn and this old way of popping corn faded for our family.  She was doing the right thing all along!  And… I am grateful that she did make popcorn on the stove, because I know it is possible and it actually works out quite well!

– Take a heavy bottom pot, like a soup pot.

– Add 2 tbsp coconut oil.  On low heat melt the oil until it coats the bottom of the pot.

– Add 1/2 cup corn kernels.  These can be purchased at the bulk food store and some grocery stores.

– Turn stove heat to Medium and put the lid on the pot.

– Wait.  The heat and steam from the pot will start the corn a poppin.’

– Gently shake the pot to help move the kernels around so they can all get popped.

– Just like in the microwave, as the popping noises diminish, the kernels are nearly all popped.

– Occasionally toward the end,  lift lid and check popcorn is not burning.

– Season with sea salt, other spices, or even consider sprinkling nutritional yeast over it for a buttery flavour.  Nutritional yeast is different from leavening yeast for baking.  You can find it at most health food stores and the bulk food store.

2) Air Popper

These can be purchased at most stores.  An air popper is a medium sized appliance that makes fresh pure pop corn from kernels using hot air.



  1. Carolyn Thomas · July 21, 2011

    Hello Dr. Laura – thanks for including a link to my blog The Ethical Nag: Marketing Ethics for the Easily Swayed (“Microwave popcorn: (still) bad for you”).

    Like you, I too have fond childhood memories of popcorn made the old-fashioned way – in a pot over the stove. Air popped is how I make it now (every bit as fast as microwave without all those nasty chemicals we can’t pronounce).

    And there’s even homemade microwave popcorn in paper lunch bags for those who think that’s the only way to go – the link to the easy-peasey recipe is at the end of my Ethical Nag piece at


    • Dr. Laura Imola, BSc, ND (Licensed) · July 21, 2011

      Hi Carolyn,

      Thank you for writing a great post on the topic! I love your blog! Thank you for your enlightening and informative writing on so many important health topics. All the best! ~Laura

  2. Lisa Di Pietro · October 31, 2011

    Great blog Laura….you have convinced me to make popcorn the old fashion way. My son Lucas has been asking me to buy a hot air popper for quite sometime now. Going to get one, right away.


    • Dr. Laura Imola, BSc, ND (Licensed) · October 31, 2011

      Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you are enjoying the blog. And… the air popper is a great idea. I hope you and your family are doing well! Take care!

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