Once a staple snack every family would enjoy as they gathered to watch a movie at home, you may have noticed that microwave popcorn isn’t quite as popular as it used to be.
Over time, it’s become more of a rarity at the grocery store. For many health-minded consumers, the nostalgia of hearing that bag of Orville Redenbacher pop in the microwave is now a thing of the past.
You might not be surprised by this story, because you might have heard that microwave popcorn is “bad for you now.” While it is true that many air-popped popcorn products are a healthier snack alternative, the truth behind the supposed health risks of microwavable popcorn is a bit more complicated.
Why Microwave Popcorn Gets a Bad Wrap
Microwave popcorn, in theory, is no different from any other type of popcorn. The core ingredient, butterfly corn kernels, is the same. The only difference is the method of making the kernels pop: microwaving instead of pot-popping.
In a vacuum, popcorn is actually a surprisingly healthy and nutritionally beneficial snack. After the kernel is popped, you’re left with a whole grain food that is high in fiber, low in calories and packed with polyphenols, a plant-based antioxidant that improves cell health.
In fact, the problems with microwave popcorn don’t actually come from the popcorn or even the microwave, but the extra ingredients and chemicals included in the paper bag. Some of them were included in the past, and some are still used today.
Once you learn about them, you might think twice before throwing that bag of popcorn into the microwave.
Diacetyl and “Popcorn Lung”
Back in the early 2000s, multiple stories came to light about popcorn factory workers experiencing serious health problems. Through research and study, it was found that the chemical, diacetyl, used by most major brands to give popcorn a buttery flavor and aroma, caused a lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as popcorn lung, if inhaled in large quantities.
The story about the factory workers picked up traction. Shortly thereafter, most major popcorn brands removed the chemical from their products. Nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to find any popcorn brands still using Diacetyl.
In 2012 researchers from the University of Minnesota found that diacetyl could also negatively impact brain health. They discovered that the chemical was able to pass through the blood-brain barrier and cause brain proteins to misfold into beta amyloid, one of the two primary pathologies associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Believe it or not, diacetyl is still found in numerous food products, but is largely seen as harmless to consume. However, when it’s heated to high temperatures (such as in your microwave), the chemical vaporizes and becomes toxic.
Popcorn Bags and PFCs
However, many major microwave popcorn brands still use another, much more ubiquitous additive in their bags: perfluorinated compounds, also known as PFCs. PFCs are in a ton of our goods, including non-stick cookware, pizza boxes, electronics, weather-resistant clothes and more. PFCs have a myriad of applications, but generally, are great at making materials resistant to stains and weather.
As kernels are popped in the microwave, PFCs break down into perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a toxic chemical that is widely thought to cause cancer. PFOAs enter the bloodstream and take a long time before it eventually leaves the body.
In a study conducted by the C8 Science Panel, which was published in 2013, researchers found that exposure to PFOA was linked to a number of health conditions, including kidney cancer and testicular cancer.
In the case of microwave popcorn, PFCs are used to line the inside of the bag to prevent grease and leakage. While convenient on paper, PFCs are scientifically understudied and are only recently beginning to be connected to increased health risks.
While PFCs may be hard to avoid in other products, we can certainly avoid this chemical in our popcorn bag.
The Other Added Ingredients You Should Avoid
But aside from Diacetyl and PFCs, perhaps the more obvious reason microwave popcorn has taken a backseat to air-popped and stovetop as a preferred snack alternative is because of the other unnecessary additives found in the bag.
For instance, the most popular microwave popcorn brands are often “Butter” or “Movie Theater” flavored. While they do achieve that “movie theater smell,” and while they are often very tasty, the butter flavoring in these popcorns are high in hydrogenated trans fats, saturated fats, sodium and artificial ingredients. All of this, combined with its chemical history, adds up to the modern adage that “microwave popcorn is bad for you.”
While the actual popcorn kernels in microwave popcorn are not genetically modified, many brands use GMO-derived ingredients like corn oil, soy oil or soy lecithin.
The truth is much closer to “most microwave popcorn is bad for you.” There are a few brands, like Quinns, that specifically highlight their non-lined packages and non-flavored options.
A Healthy (and Still Tasty) Alternative
Until more brands adopt healthier, non-lined microwave popcorn options, I recommend grabbing a bag of ready-made popcorn. But, just like with microwave popcorn, watch out for “Movie Theater” and other loaded flavors.
Another option is to use air-popped popcorn, which doesn’t include additives or artificial flavors found inside of microwave popcorn bags. You can use a stove or hot air popper to make homemade popcorn. You can still add a drizzle of olive oil and sea salt, coconut oil, or red palm oil to your homemade popcorn for a healthy and tasty treat.
But remember, adding the wrong flavoring or ingredients to your homemade popcorn can turn your otherwise low-calorie snack into a fatty, salty overload. Popcorn is as healthy — or unhealthy — as you make it.
Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.
From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.