Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Food Media & News >
Sep 5, 2007 02:17 PM

Butter flavored popcorn- lung disease risk?

There have been a rash of articles and announcements today regarding Diacetyl, a chemical used (or created) in foods with "butter flavors", and its role in a serious lung disease. Here is a link to one credible source:

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. While I've never been a fan of microwave popcorn (can't stand the taste OR the smell) I wouldn't be too concerned for someone who was preparing and eating the occasional bag. The people who have been affected by this have almost all been factory workers (which is a whole 'nother story and not one I am prepared to get into here) but as for the average consumer, the one person who, it appears, has suffered lung damage from this apparently ate up to three bags a day of the stuff, EVERY DAY, and was exposed to the fumes in his house every time he microwaved another bag. I mean, for godsakes, who in their right mind would eat so much of this garbage in the first place? Yuck.

    1. "Dr. Rose measured levels of diacetyl in the man’s home after he made popcorn and found levels of the chemical were similar to those in microwave popcorn plants."

      Sounds like it could be hazardous to anyone who works near a microwave in a convenience store, office, or anyplace else where people nuke a lot of popcorn.

      21 Replies
      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        A follow-up story to this states that the man admitted inhaling directly from the popcorn bag, every day. "He just loves the smell of popcorn." the story goes on to say.

        Point being, while not commenting on the apparent hazards of this chemical, and certainly not arguing for its continued inclusion in foodstuff, the facts seems to be that this man was exposed to absurd levels of the stuff on a daily basis over an extremely long period of time, ten years at least, or so the articles have been saying. I doubt most people (outside of factory workers) even come close to this kind of exposure.

        1. re: flourgirl

          If, as Dr. Rose found, microwaving a bag of popcorn results in factory-plant levels in a home, then it seems likely that anyone who spends their working hours near a microwave that's frequently used to make popcorn might be getting the same level of exposure.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            That might or might not be true - this was a very isolated example - we are talking about ONE person out of the entire country. We have no idea what the conditions were like in this man's house - what the ventilation situation was, etc. And I actually said in two separate posts that I was not arguing in support of the additive. My point was that the average consumer of microwave popcorn most likely does not have to lose a lot of sleep over this, as they are most likely not duplicating the scenario that this gentleman seemed to be creating for himself. Don't we already have enough to worry about without adding microwaved popcorn to the list? (Although I completely agree with posters below that making popcorn the old-fashioned way just plain tastes and smells better anyway.)

            1. re: flourgirl

              I KNEW something was wrong with microwaved popcorn. Whenever I am near it, my chest seizes up and I start coughing uncontrollably. It is a strange sensation, unlike anything else. I have always been sensitive to certain chemicals, so I guess I am the canary in a coal mine for this one.

              1. re: flourgirl

                I didn't say anything about average consumers.

                Working near a busy office kitchen where a lot of people nuke popcorn (a common freebie) would seem a potential risk.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  There must certainly be a difference between the vile odor of the stuff (to which a lot of us seem to object) and any actual hazard from chemicals which are inside the bag and microwave oven down the hall.
                  This is over-reacting.

                  1. re: MakingSense

                    The odor isn't the problem for me. As a youth, I worked in movie theaters and would often pop close to 50lbs of kernels a night (Bargain nights! Big buckets!) and it never bothered me.

                    This microwave stuff has a definite effect on my breathing.

                    1. re: MakingSense

                      From the stories, it seems like the synthetic butter aroma is coming from the hazardous chemical. If you're working near a busy microwave that's being used all day, you might be getting diacetyl exposure similar to microwave-popcorn-factory workers.

                      1. re: MakingSense

                        What you are smelling is the diacetyl.

                        1. re: wally

                          If you're smelling something butterlike, and the popcorn is artificially "butter-flavored" with diacetyl, you're smelling diacetyl.

                          Diacetyl-free microwave popcorn can also stink up the room.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            Yes, true, but it is a different odor and most popcorn that people heat in microwaves is "butter-flavored". I also wonder about cross contamination in manufacturing. I think it is hard to find unflavored microwave popcorn. I worked with diacetyl for a period in the past and may be sensitized to it.

                      2. re: Robert Lauriston

                        I have sympathy for you. I've worked in many offices and that was one of my very few pet peeves - I loathe the smell of the stuff and every time someone popped a bag it made me queezy. I swear I remember reading somewhere recently that some workplaces have actually instituted policies against microwavable popcorn precisely because of the odor.

                        1. re: flourgirl

                          I loathe the stinky stuff too but this is a story blown out of proportion. It's based on a single case reported by one doctor who hedges her words. She "suspects" that the man who ate up to three bags a day of the vile stuff for ten years may have caught the rare disease that way but there's "no firm evidence." One news report said the man liked the stuff so much he would inhale the "scent" when he opened the bag.
                          I'd love to see it banned from the office - but health concerns aren't the reason. I hate the smell.

                          1. re: MakingSense

                            Makingsense, I agree with everything you said, and I said pretty much the same thing in all of my previous posts on this subject.

                            1. re: MakingSense

                              The "one doctor" in this case is Dr. Cecile Rose, director of the occupational disease clinical programs at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, a specialist in "popcorn workers’ lung."

                              She said, "This is not a definitive causal link, but it raises a lot of questions and supports the recommendation that more work needs to be done." That's not hedging, it's just the careful statement of a scientist.

                              Microwave popcorn manufacturers are not waiting for more work to be done to remove diacetyl from their products.


                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                So there is one case of popcorn lungs and all the chicken littles come out of the henhouse.

                                "Dr. Cecile Rose, a lung specialist at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver who diagnosed Watson’s case in February, told the AP that no definite link has been established between Watson’s heavy popcorn consumption and his lung disease" but further investigation is needed.

                                And she also stated she still lets her children microwave popcorn in her own home.

                                Yes there should be further investigation into any consumer complaint, but the chicken little reaction is a little overboard.

                                BTW - jfood does not MV or cook popcorn, doesn;t really like the stuff so he couldn;t care one way or the other.

                                1. re: jfood

                                  There's not one case. This is just the first time it's been diagnosed outside of factories that work with diacetyl. Since microwaving flavored popcorn can cause factory levels of diacetyl in the air, there may be other places with hazardous levels of exposure.

                                  One bag at home once in a while? Probably not. One bag after another in an office kitchen sufficient to make the whole place smell of popcorn all afternoon? I wouldn't bet my health on it.

                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    "There's not one case. This is just the first time it's been diagnosed outside of factories that work with diacetyl. "

                                    It is the first case outside the factory. Did you see the guy on TV this morning. he is almost glad and happyit happened to him. Guaranteed he gets lawyered up over the next few weeks and looks like Howard Hughes in a wheel chair on his next interview.

                                    Jfood not downplaying potential risks, but one data point outside the factory is just that one data point. And inhaling any chemical over time will probably cause some ill effects to certain groups of people.

                                2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  Of course the good doctor thinks more work would need to be done in an obscure disease in which she's an expert. Wonder who will get the study grants?
                                  Fortunately, since MW popcorn companies are already removing it from their products, looks like the problem won't be around for long.
                                  Another piece of the sky will fall to keep the Chicken Littles busy.

                              2. re: flourgirl

                                Without commenting on the risks or my opinion on the flavor/taste of microwave "buttered" popcorn, here's a quick story:

                                Years ago my wife worked at an acute care rehab hospital. They banned microwave popcorn not because people objected to the smell, but rather the opposite -- it smell was so "good' that it was disturbing the patients -- especially hard for those on restricted diets.

                                1. re: flourgirl

                                  Flourgirl, in a "past life" I had a business with 40 employees. On top of my very short "no no" list was making popcorn in the office microwave. I just couldn't stand the smell . . . .

                      3. Just another reason to make popcorn the old fashioned way . . . . In addition to the fact that it just tastes better,

                        3 Replies
                          1. re: Seattle Rose

                            Please stop with the assumptions. You have no data other than a single doctor's single test to make claims that working in an office or anywhere near a microwave that makes popcorn poses a risk. Sorry, but I come from a scientific background and to start assuming these things irks me to no end.

                            1. re: Rick

                              couldn't agree more. when people understand the difference between causation and correlation, these things will be lessened.

                              Remember the theory that humans turn into maggots after they die?

                          2. For a better take on this story, check out the blog <>. The guy who writes it is a public health scientist and has been exploring "popcorn lung" in factory workers for months. He's the one who made the popcorn-consumer story public by posting the Coloado doctor's letter plus the federal agencies' (non-) responses. The food manufacturers' press release came in response to his work and then the major papers picked it up, but he has more expertise, context and detail.

                            1. My brother has always claimed to have problems breathing when eating popcorn. We laughed at him- maybe he was on to something. When I first read about this phenomenon a couple of days ago, it initially sounded like one more sensational media false alarm. But then I did some (very preliminary) research, and realized that several sources were reporting on it, with a convincing degree of certainty with regard to risk to commercial workers. So I figured the Chow community would like to know- we often discuss matters of artificial vs. natural, "organic" vs. "conventional", processed vs. fresh, etc. I definitely did not intend to disseminate alarmist information for the pure sake of scaring of people. I originally posted this topic bc I found several "reputable" sources were reporting on it. Indeed, the story has gotten bigger, and I dare say, more disturbing, as the NY Times published a pretty good summary of the issue today. Here is the link:

                              8 Replies
                              1. re: vvvindaloo

                                And I think it's a good thing that the manufacturer is removing the chemical from their product - the question then becomes, what are they going to replace it with?

                                1. re: vvvindaloo

                                  No one questions that the story has now appeared in "reputable" sources in the mainstream media. In each case, the journalists call different people for new comments and other media then re-quote some of those comments. So the story mushrooms, and as you say it has gotten bigger. Some people have made it seem more disturbing than it may actually be. The internet gets hold of this type of story and the actual truth can get lost. People are gasping for breath in office cubicles next to the kitchen and OSHA is investigating.
                                  Ultimately, however, the story goes back to one case reported by one doctor. Even that doctor urges caution in interpreting the results. Microwave popcorn companies are already discontinuing the use of the chemical.

                                  Conventional popcorn can be a choking hazard, especially for small children. Do you worry about that? It doesn't make a sexy media story.

                                  1. re: MakingSense

                                    Well, I certainly wouldn't tell anyone else what they should or shouldn't worry about, or that they should never eat microwave popcorn again. But, for me personally, even one person contracting a lung disease from inhaling/ingesting a food and/or its aroma, is enough to disturb me. And its worth knowing about. For me. I don't care if the person sucked in the chemical once or ten thousand times- it seems like a bad thing, not to mention unnatural and unnerving. Furthermore, I think that the companies' discontinuing the chemical use, rather than guaranteeing the public of its safety, is telling. Lastly, I don't really find the choking hazard scenario relevant here- I can take precautions against choking on popcorn, which is a natural, albeit unfortunate, occurrence. Developing a lung disease from smelling popcorn is neither natural nor avoidable in any conscious way.

                                    1. re: vvvindaloo

                                      Actually, OSHA and NIOSH have been investigating diacetyl since 1999.

                                      The EPA started a study of potential danger to consumers in 2003, and completed it sometime last year, but it has not yet been published. Thanks to this week's news, I expect we'll be seeing that soon, either in a peer-reviewed publication or via a Congressional subpoena.

                                      1. re: vvvindaloo

                                        The guy wasn't "smelling" popcorn. He was eating 3 bags a day for 10 years and admitted loving the smell so much (yuck) that he would open the bag right out of the microwave and inhale the perfume.

                                        If "even one person [getting sick from something] is enough to disturb" you, there must be very few things left that don't. There are estimates of about 5000 deaths each year from food-borne illnesses. Millions of cases of illness, most unreported.

                                        1. re: MakingSense

                                          Obviously, nothing is 100% controllable. No matter how carefully regulated our food production/farming methods are, people will become ill and/or die from food-borne disease due to many possible factors, including bacterial and viral poisoning, mislabeled packaging, defective processing, and various forms of contamination and spoilage. Eating is a risk, and I can appreciate the general theory of your argument. I think that the crux of my concern here is that this is a completely unnatural, unnecessary and unforseeable consequence to eating a common food. And this common food can potentially lead to a serious illness that is entirely independent of allergy, packaging, contamination, or any other natural occurrence. Rather, this illness is due to an artificial process that our government allows in food production, and has already been proven to cause lung disease (NOT a reasonably anticipated result of any type food borne illness) in those exposed to extreme amounts. Perhaps we should wonder WHY NOT be disturbed by the fact that we are offered unnatural foods with such consequences? Personally, as a consumer and human being who cares about what they eat, I want to be informed of such things. I am not going to stop eating popcorn forever (thought I do not personally care for the MW variety). I am not going to tell others to stop eating it. But I don't think its overreacting to be disturbed by this info.

                                          1. re: vvvindaloo

                                            Exactly. It is incredibly easy to make popcorn in a number of other methods that don't cause this type of chemical exposure.