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Pop Goes the Lung Disease

By Jocelyn Geboy in Food on Sep 5, 2007 4:47PM

Chemicals — what would we do without them? Twinkies wouldn't have a shelf life of a decade. Diet Coke wouldn't be diet. And microwave popcorn wouldn't cause some weird lung disease. We just read today that diacetyl, one of the main substances used to flavor microwave popcorn*, isn't so good for the lungs.

Truthfully, when we read the first article about the first consumer that is likely to have "popcorn lung" (bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome, or BOS), we kind of laughed. In the "hahahaha ... how much microwave popcorn do you have to eat to get a lung disease from the fumes?" kind of way. However, with just the slightest amount of internet research, it turns out that "popcorn lung" has been talked about in regards to the manufacturing industry since 2001.

2007_09popcorn.jpgDr. Cecile Rose, a pulmonary specialist at Denver's National Jewish Medical and Research Center (known for the care and research of pulmonary diseases), wrote a letter to federal agencies indicating the diacetyl concern may have crossed from factory to consumer. There is now the first case of a consumer who developed lung disease from the fumes of microwaving popcorn several times a day for years. (But still?) On Tuesday, David Michaels, of the George Washington University School of Public Health, published Dr. Rose's letter on his blog, The Pump Handle.

The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (go grenadine!) is now recommending that its members reduce the amount of diacetyl in their products. If you want to skip the fake butter altogether, you can make popcorn the old-fashioned way and take the tip of our own James Koh, who suggests the following handy tip:

The absolute best way to make popcorn at home is to buy plain kernels, put 1/4 cup in a brown paper lunch bag folded down, and then microwave it until the popping subsides. Mix in however much melted butter you want and however much salt you want. It's just as quick and just as easy as packaged microwave popcorn. And it's cheaper, it's healthier, it's less likely to destroy your lungs, and (most importantly) it's way way way more delicious.

For the slight "can't help but be mesmerized factor," there's always Jiffy Pop.

*According to Wikipedia, diacetyl is a natural byproduct of fermentation, but we can't figure out how microwave popcorn has anything to do with fermentation, and so we can't see it as being a real natural part of the popcorn process.

"Everything You Need to Know About Microwave Popcorn" by *a guy with a camera.