Americans love their popcorn-the average person eats about 54 quarts a year…that’s equivalent to 39 bags of microwave popcorn every year! You may have heard that microwave popcorn can be hazardous to your health…and according to some internet sources… it’s an absolute health disaster! Today I will set out the facts and clear up some common misconceptions. You can decide for yourself if you would like to continue eating microwave popcorn.
I thought researching this topic would be pretty quick and easy. Not true. I dug for quite a few days, reading dozens of studies and making multiple phone calls to microwave popcorn manufacturers to get the real facts.
Remember? I read the science so you don’t have to!
Here are the health concerns most commonly unearthed in your typical internet search about the safety of microwave popcorn:
- The fake butter flavoring is nasty and dangerous.
- The bag is lined with Teflon.
- Vapors escaping from the bag are toxic.
- The preservatives are dangerous or toxic.
- Contains trans-fats.
Fake Butter Flavoring
Well, it turns out the chemical compound in “fake butter,” diacetyl, is really the same naturally occurring chemical in real butter! Organic chemists have identified dactyl as the naturally occurring compound that gives sour cream, cheese, wine and cultured butter their deep characteristic buttery aroma.1, 2 Once isolated, food companies started using it in foods as a flavor enhancer.
The problem with diacetyl does not come with eating it. The problem comes with inhaling it. Diacetyl made the headline news when employees in popcorn manufacturing plants developed a debilitating lung disease (Popcorn Lung) from chronically inhaling the aerosolized diacetyl.3, 4 Indeed, one study concludes that diacetyl can also pose a threat to consumers if they chronically breathe the vapors emanating from the freshly popped bag.5 Due to the bad press, some manufacturers started to use other butter flavorings, but if inhaled, they pose the same risk as diacetyl.6
Currently, the American Lung Association, Food and Drug Administration, and the Center for Disease Control have concluded that the butter flavoring in microwave popcorn does not pose a risk to the consumer. The Environmental Working Group rates diacetyl as the safest of food additives with a score of 1 out of 10.
To avoid inhaling diacetyl, open freshly popped bags away from your face, and if you have an exhaust fan attached to your stove, turn it on and open the bag by the fan. Wait until the popcorn has cooled to enjoy your crunchy buttery snack.
The Bag Is Lined With Teflon
Maybe. Along with microwave popcorn bags, many of the papery containers we use to store food, like takeout food, fast food wrappers, candy wrappers, pizza boxes, and “doggie bags” are lined with a chemical to keep the grease and moisture from seeping through the paper.7 This chemical can break down into a very harmful byproduct known as perfluorooctinoic acid (PFOA), the harmful chemical associated with Teflon.
PFOA is produced as the popcorn bag liner is heated and the PFOA leaches into the popcorn.8 It is also present in the vapors escaping a freshly popped bag. 9,10 One study measured the amount of PFOA that migrated into the popcorn-it was hundreds of times more than would migrate into food from non-stick pans.10 Wow!
PFOA has many deleterious health effects including bioaccumulation, endocrine disruption, birth defects in animals, cancer, neurotoxicity, and immune problems to name a few.
Because it’s so harmful, many microwave popcorn manufacturers have phased out PFOA generating liners and replaced them with other chemicals. The new chemicals (C6) are still in the same chemical family as PFOA, and appear to be less toxic because they break down easily and do not bioaccumulate. As of this writing in 2016, the available database for these compounds is fairly limited.11
Here’s the problem, the consumer can’t tell which microwave popcorn brands use these new “safe” liners. I called ConAgra, the maker of Orville Redenbacher’s and Act II microwave popcorns to find out what they used to line the bag. They phased out the use of PFOA generating liners in 2009 and now use a “perfluorinated polymer coating.” These new liners could prove to be safer, but the jury is definitely still out.
The greatest chemical quantity is emitted when the bag is opened post-popping; more than 80% of the total chemical emissions occur at this time.12 So once again, if you really can’t resist microwave popcorn, open the bag in a well-ventilated area or by an exhaust fan.
The Preservatives Are Hazardous
Maybe, but you need to read the label. The most common preservatives used in microwave popcorn are citric acid (from citrus fruit), ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), propyl gallate and TBHQ (tert-butylhydroquinone). They are added to keep the oil from going rancid during storage. Of course, citric acid and ascorbic acid are safe, but what about TBHQ and propyl gallate? Neither gets a perfectly safe score from the Environmental Working Group, but are allowed in food by the FDA and the European Union.13 A recent study has indicated that propyl gallate is a mild endocrine disruptor at very low concentrations.14 Only buy the brands that use natural preservatives like ascorbic acid and citric acid.
Maybe. We all know the dangers of trans-fats so I don’t need to list them here. Many brands of microwave popcorn use trans-fats as the cooking oil because they are more shelf-stable. Look on the label; if it says “hydrogenated” or “partially-hydrogenated,” it contains trans-fats. Don’t buy it.
Dr. Gonzo’s Retro Solution
My family pops our own corn on the stove or microwave. Sure, it’s not as convenient, and we have an extra pan to wash, but at least I know my family is exposed to fewer dangerous chemicals and preservatives, no toxic vapors, fewer artificial colors and flavors and more healthy fats. Here are links for a stove method and a microwave method for popping your favorite corn.
This is a first post in a series, which explains how and why it is essential for you try and steer clear of a class of chemicals known as endocrine disrupting chemicals or EDCs. Over the next few posts, I will discuss typical household products that contain EDCs and suggest safe alternatives.
What are EDCs?
As you probably know, the endocrine system governs all the hormones in our bodies. Hormones regulate nearly every aspect of our daily lives including metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and mood, just to name a few.
EDCs are natural or manmade substances, external to the body, that directly alter the function of the endocrine system, and cause negative health effects1. EDCs are a genuine health concern because they can really mess with chemical signaling within cells and wreak havoc with our hormones.
How do EDCs work?
EDCs can disrupt normal hormone activity by:
- Mimicking our natural hormones like estrogens (the female sex hormone), androgens (the male sex hormone), and thyroid hormones.
- Binding to cells preventing hormones from doing their job.
- Interfere or block the way our hormones are made.
Consequences of hormone disruption
Over the past few decades, the consequences of EDCs in our environment have been studied extensively. Scientists now have a really good idea of how powerful and damaging these chemicals can be. Some EDCs are so damaging, that the FDA, EPA and CDC have mandated bans on their use…remember DDT and Agent Orange?
There are so many adverse effects to EDC exposure that the list is too long to print here. However, scientists and doctors belonging to the Endocrine Society recently issued a statement linking everything listed below to EDC exposure2.
- Hormone-sensitive cancers (testicular, breast, endometrial, thyroid and prostate)3
- Obesity and cardiovascular disease4, 5
- Onset of Type 2 Diabetes6
- Onset of asthma7
- Female reproduction toxicity8
- Decline in quality and quantity of male sperm3
- Deleterious effects on fetal neural development 9
- Early puberty in girls10
Have you been exposed to EDCs?
Unfortunately, if you live in any industrialized country, the answer is a resounding “yes.” EDCs are ubiquitous in our surroundings because they are found in the soil, air, and drinking water and in loads of everyday products– including plastic bottles, carpet, electronics, furniture, metal food cans, fragrances, detergents, fabric softeners, flame-retardant clothing, pharmaceuticals, food, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides. Wow!
The effects on children are compounded. Why? Because children are not just tiny adults. As a percentage of their body weight, they breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food than adults. This is because their organs are undergoing rapid change and development. To top it off, we unwittingly expose them to personal care products, toys, and clothing that contain EDCs. Research shows that EDCs may pose the greatest risk during prenatal and early postnatal development when organ and neural systems are forming.11
Don’t these products have to be safe to be on the market?
No. The majority of the more than 2,000 chemicals that come onto the market every year do not go through even the simplest tests to determine toxicity. Even when some tests are carried out, most do not assess whether a chemical has endocrine disrupting properties.12
Further, manufacturers don’t have to list all the ingredients on their labels because they are considered proprietary, or “trade secrets.” It is practically impossible for a consumer to actually know what is in a product.
You’re freakin’ me out…what should I do?
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing easy ways for you to limit exposure to EDCs. Fortunately, there are a bunch of things you can do to get started right away13.
- Buy organic foods when possible. Refer to my post Biggest Bang for your Organic Produce Buck.
- Avoid drinking water from disposable plastic water bottles.
- Get a water filter that will remove pesticides, lead and heavy metals. Click here for recommendations.
- Eat fewer animal products. EDCs can accumulate in milk and animal tissues.
- Don’t store food in plastic containers. Use glass instead.
- Avoid personal care products that list “fragrance” in the ingredients. More about this biggie in a later post.
- Get a HEPA filter and HEPA bag for your vacuum cleaner to cut down on toxic EDC laden dust generated by furniture, carpet and electronics.
- Minimize use of canned foods and don’t buy infant formula in cans. The can liner contains EDCs.
- Skip the non-stick pans unless they are “green” non-stick pans.
Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more detailed descriptions about which products to avoid and which products and brands are safe.
See you next time!
It’s old news that we should be feeding our families organic food if possible. Organically grown produce has not been exposed to herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones and are not GMOs. This is important because the first three chemicals have been documented as endocrine disruptors.
What are endocrine disruptors? Well, they alter the normal functioning of human hormones and may interfere with the body’s endocrine system (hormone system) and produce adverse developmental, neurological, immune and reproductive effects. Endocrine disruptors may be found in lots of everyday products– including plastic bottles, metal food cans, detergents, flame retardants, food, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides on produce. I’ll give a more in depth explanation of endocrine disruptors and where they lurk in your home in later posts. For now we’ll focus on produce.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 80% of our pesticide exposure comes from the food we eat, the other 20% comes from our drinking water and pesticides we use around our homes.
I don’t want to take any chances that my kids will be exposed to these nasties, so I have a strategy to help me navigate the produce aisle.
If you’re like I am, you don’t have a gazillion dollars to buy every item on your grocery list in organic form. So, how is a person supposed to know the best way to get the biggest bang for your organic produce buck? Below is my “rule of thumb” to help you decide whether to buy organic:
Buy organic if:
- The skin is consumed
- If it is a leafy green
- If it is a white or yellow potato
To take it a step further, search the plethora of apps devoted to organic foods. One of my favorite “go to” sources for food safety is the Environmental Working Group. You can easily download their app to your phone for handy reference on whether or not to buy organic. Just search the App Store for “EWG Dirty Dozen.” They also have produced a printable list if you prefer. After a while you won’t even need the list.
Below is a recap of the produce that has the highest levels of chemical residue. I only buy the Dirty Dozen if they are available in organic form.
- Apples (including apple juice and cider)
- Cherry tomatoes
- Peppers (hot)
- Potatoes (white)
- Peppers (sweet)
Additional items I always buy organic are dairy products, meat, eggs and rice. More about these particular items in a later post.
You don’t always need to buy organic
If you shop at Costco, you’ll be happy to learn that their tomatoes and bell peppers are grown in hothouses to exacting standards that include no herbicides or pesticides. Although they are not “technically” organic, I’m happy to buy them. Read more about Costco tomatoes here.
Below is a list of produce that consistently tests as “cleanest” with respect to chemical residue and so I don’t spend the extra cash on the organic variety.
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Sweet Potatoes
While I think it’s a good idea to limit pesticide exposure if possible, especially when kids are involved, scientists and health experts overwhelmingly agree that the mere presence of pesticide residues on food does not mean they are harmful. Personally, I prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to my kid’s developing brains. I mean, how could fewer nasty chemicals be harmful?
What if organic isn’t available?
In many communities in America, organic is simply not available. I know this…I used to live in North Dakota for a decade when my kids were babies, and for many of those years I couldn’t find an organic blueberry to save my life! If organic produce is not available, by all means buy the conventionally grown varieties and wash them well! Simply washing them with a washcloth or scrub brush goes a long way to removing pesticide residue on the surface of the produce.
This will make you feel better….
The good news is that conventionally grown produce, is regarded as safe by both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the EPA. The database maintained by the U.S.D.A., shows that 99% of the produce tested fell far below the permissible upper limit level of pesticides and herbicides. This goes for the baby food tested as well!
If you’d like to see a neat calculator showing the amount of “Dirty Dozen” foods you would have to consume to have detrimental effects, click here. You will feel reassured about our food supply!
I hope this post will help with your decisions about whether to buy organic produce. If you have a favorite app or website about organic food, let me know!
See you next time!
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