Microwave popcorn has yet another strike against it as researchers announce that diacetyl, a substance used to give the snack its buttery flavor, has a structure similar to beta-amyloid protein clumping in the brain, which is associated with Alzheimer’s disease. They also found that the harmful substance can pass from the blood to the brain, penetrating the body’s defense system. The study was published in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology.
The scientists from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Drug Design concluded that those with high levels of exposure to the chemical may have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Nerve cells can also be poisoned from the effects of diacetyl, they found.
Diacetyl is used mainly in microwave popcorn, but many brands removed the chemical from their popcorn in 2007. They replaced it with diacetyl substitutes, but experts at the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) don’t find this to be a very suitable substitute. “While it is presently uncertain whether they pose health risks upon inhalation, their chemical structures are very similar to diacetyl,” they have said.
Because of current regulations, manufacturers are not required to say what exactly they use to give their products that delicious buttery taste, so it goes under the generic ingredient title “flavoring.” They can also market their product as “natural” because diacetyl is considered a natural material as it occurs naturally in some foods. Besides popcorn, diacetyl is also a common ingredient in margarine, butter, milk, cookies and candies, beer, and many other products.
The Food and Drug Administration classifies diacetyl under “Generally Recognized as Safe,” and microwave popcorn as safe for human consumption. A specialist in internal and occupational medicine, Dr. David Egilman, disagrees with this status, saying in an interview in 2009, “No one knows how many cases of consumers injured by the flavoring vapor for the microwaved popcorn because no one has really looked.”
Although workers at plants using diacetyl are at the most risk for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, consumers who eat a lot of these products can also develop serious health problems. Bronchiolitis obliterans, a disease that destroys the lungs by irreversibly damaging small airways, has been blamed for the deaths of several factory workers and hundreds of others’ sicknesses. According to AOL News, one woman who contracted bronchiolitis obliterans must have a lung transplant because of it. She popped sixty bags of popcorn each week for five years working at a Blockbuster.
Moderate consumption of popcorn won’t likely have you developing this frightening disease, but it does make us remember to not over consume anything, even something as simple as popcorn. As well, it’s a good reminder that, while tasty, nothing is better than air-popped popcorn.