August 1

Popcorn Snacker Alert: Pop Goes the Diacetyl

10  comments

A recent article in the LA Times (registration required, but free) gives us yet another good reason to eschew microwave popcorn: the flavor agent, diacetyl, widely used to give microwave popcorn its buttery flavor has been tied to the development of an irreversible lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans that’s been cropping up with alarming regularity in the workers at popcorn factories.

The article hastened to add that at this point consumers are not thought to be at risk. Right. I don’t know about you, but based on the track record of the food toxin watchdogs in this country, I wouldn’t be betting my lungs on their timely notification/admission that the stuff DOES put consumers at risk, if such were to prove the case.

Anyway, the whole diacetyl mess is just one more example of the law of unintended consequences. Had ‘they’ not gotten their britches in an unjustified and unnecessary twist over the use of real butter in the first place, there would never have been a need for using diacetyl to impart an artificial ‘real butter’ flavor to popcorn (and other products) and none of these workers victimized by inhaling the chemical would have succumbed to this awful disease. So sad and so preventable.

Now, off my soapbox and back to popcorn…

While popcorn may seem like an odd topic for a carb conscious person, such as I, to be riffing on, it’s actually not too bad a carb bargain. A 1-cup serving popped in oil has 55 calories, 28 of them from fat, 1 gram of protein, 6.3 grams of total carb, 1.1 grams of fiber, and therefore, an ECC of only 5.2 grams. Not a bad snack. The problem, of course, is that it is an antigenic grain that many people do not tolerate, but that’s another blog. For those interested, see our discussion of wheat and corn and various autoimmune and inflammatory disorders in The Protein Power LifePlan (Warner 2000).

Over the years in our practice, we had many patients who enjoyed a little popcorn snack. One gentleman comes to mind, in particular, who ate a measured cup of popcorn every evening during his successful weight loss endeavor under our watch. Fortunately, it was airpopped, not microwaved, that he craved.

Suffice it to say that until ‘they’ can prove to me there’s not a health risk from eating the aritifically flavored microwaved form, my feeling is that those people who just must have a bit of popcorn would be better served to do it the old fashioned way. For those who grew up in the age of microwave popped corn, here’s how to do it:

Put a heavy bottomed pan on the stove, add a a bit of good high-temp stable oil, such as coconut oil, turn the heat to medium to heat the oil. Then cover the bottom of the vessel with (untainted) popping corn, put a lid on it, turn the heat to medium high, and wait for the pop…pop…popping to start.

Meanwhile, melt some real honest-to-Pete (preferably organic) butter in the microwave (the only proper use for this kitchen appliance in making popcorn, for sure!) and have it ready.

When the popping starts, shake the pot vigorously intermittantly to prevent kernels on the bottom from burning, because nothing smells worse than burned popcorn and, besides, it ruins the flavor of the whole batch. One bad apple may not spoil the whole bunch, girl (apologies to Wacko Jacko) but one burned popcorn kernel sure does.

Conversely, nothing sets a mouth to watering quite like the smell of freshly popped corn. It’s an aroma so enticing that at our clinic we forbade the staff from popping popcorn on the premises during business hours, since it sent the poor patients in the exam and waiting rooms into a Pavlovian dither.

When the corn is fully popped, crack open the lid, pour on the real melted butter, sprinkle on a touch of salt and enjoy your cup. If you made a lot more than a cup, be sure you invited friends over to help consume it. Beware! If you’re like me, left alone with a big bowl of hot buttered popcorn, your measured 1 cup will become 4 cups before you can blink and a reasonable 5 grams will become 20.

Caveat Popcorn-eator!


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  1. Thanks for the info. I’ve also noticed that many microwaved popcorns contain trans fats anyway, so that was reason enough. Personally, my weakness has become kettle korn. Any idea how to make that fresh? I’d imagine it’s just the butter, salt, and of course some Splenda.

    I hope you meant 2.8 grams of fat instead of 28…that is, unless you REALLY like butter 🙂

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Oops! Actually, what I meant is 28 calories from fat, about 3 grams. Thanks for catching it; I’ll correct it straightaway. Oh, and that’s without butter, a tablespoon of which will add about 14 grams or so.

  2. is that a cup post popping or a cup of kernals? a measly little cup of popped popcorn hardly seems worth the effort…

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Oh, hope springs eternal, doesn’t it? A cup POPPED, not a cup of unpopped kernals, which would make a giant cauldronful. I agree that 1 cup popped is a tough portion to stay within and making just a cup of popped corn is hardly worth the effort; thus, I recommend popping a whole pot, but inviting 6 or 8 other people to enjoy it with you…and not popping it until they get there.

  3. In my very health conscious family when I was a kid we had a tradition of Popcorn and Ice cream on Sunday nights. Something to break up the monotony (and horror) of things like celery juice and soy burgers.

    But we ate popcorn in absolutely enormous bowls. I can’t imagine being able to stop at only 1 cup!

    I finally figured out that corn (in most forms) seems to really do a number on my stomach and intestines along with dairy and wheat.

    Now I’m going to have to look up antigenic…

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Allow me: Antigenic (adj.) of or relating to something that when introduced into the body stimulates antibody production.

  4. Popcorn is the one “cheat” that I have never refused, and fortunately it has not caused much damage except in the winter months.
    Popcorn is much better when it is allowed to “sit” for exactly one minute after the first kernel pops. Real Bacon fat (from no nitrite, nitrate, or antibiotic bacon) is best, but I do use coconut oil too on occaision (when my daughter opposes the bacon fat).
    Real butter is essential, as is good quality ground sea salt.

    I guess I am a popcorn snob. But hey, if one is going to cheat at least get the good fats and the good salt.

    How DO you keep that serving size down? I find that I keep upping the pot…

    One thing I found hilarious recently was the giant lettering on a national brand microwave popcorn. Can you guess what it said?

    COMMENT from MD EADES: No, what? NO CHOLESTEROL? LOW FAT? FAT FREE?

    And by the way, the bacon fat sounds great, although as I said to another commenter, organic lard would work well, too and impart a different, non-smoky taste.
    PS don’t forget to enter the code word at the bottom of the comment form after your write and preview your comment, since without it your comment will be directed to the Junk Comment folder with the spam, from whence I rescued this one.

  5. That’s how I used to do my popcorn in the days before microwaves. The flavor is much superior to airpopped popcorn. I actually used butter as a fat. It did turn the popcorn brown (and burning butter might have issues of its own), but it was very tasty. Maybe clarified butter, or ghee might be an alternative.

    Be aware however, that its very hard on your pots. At least it was on mine.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Probably best to have a “popcorn pot”. Actually, organic lard wouldn’t be a bad choice, since it withstands very high temperatures without burning, even though–little known fact–it has almost as much monounsaturated fat as olive oil.
    PS Don’t forget to enter the code word on the bottom of the comment page after you write and preview your comment so your comment won’t be directed to the Junk Comment folder with all the spam, from whence I rescued it today. 😉

  6. Just opening a bag of microwave popcorn gave me asthma attacks, I didn’t have to eat it, so I’ve always suspected that it contained some weird component that was being atomized by the heat. Now I know I was right.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Good thing you had the good sense to correlate symptoms with events!

  7. Dr. Eades, the label said “WHOLE GRAIN!”
    I laughed all the way home.

    I appologize for not typing the lowcarb password. I thought I did, but will pay closer attention next time.

    Absolutely love your blog. Keep the booze and the berries coming as you wish… but don’t forget about the chocolate!

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Thanks. I love it: Whole Grain…the new pyramid buzz word! And you probably did type it in. It seems that if you type in your comment, then type the code word, then PREVIEW your comment that it erases the code word and you have to do it again. At least that’s what I think is happening. So we probably need to have the webmaster put some text on that says the last thing you do before you hit save is type in the code word.

  8. ConAgra Foods manufactures ACT II Microwave Popcorn Butter, which, according to the label contains butter, not diacetyl. I am so glad I found this and do not have to give up microwave popcorn, after having read the diacetyl horror stories!

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Great to know. Still, of course, leaves us to wonder if it’s shelf stable without refrigeration exactly what sort of butter is it that is in the package?

  9. Thanks for posting this article online. I was actually researching ‘diacetyl’ online when I came across this article. I consistently end up with shortness of breath after eating microwave buttered popcorn – so bad that I went looking to see what I would find. It’s scary to see that I was onto something. I suspect there are a lot of people out there experiencing similar problems. Unfortunately, the industry isn’t likely to self-regulate, and too many doctors are too quick to just treat symptoms rather than exploring causes, so people may be suffering ‘diseases’ that are ultimately preventable.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: You’re right; glad you had the presence of mind to know something was up in your own case. At least, now, you know why.

  10. SeaRoar said, “ConAgra Foods manufactures ACT II Microwave Popcorn Butter, which, according to the label contains butter, not diacetyl.”

    As of December, 2006, Act II still contained diacetyl. ConAgra, makers of Orville Redenbacher and Act II popcorn, installed new ventilation in its Marion OH plant to protect workers from this chemical. http://www.cleveland.com/news/plaindealer/index.ssf?/base/news/1165149323242550.xml&coll=2

    COMMENT from MD EADES:  Thanks for the update.  I’ll still opt for real butter on my popcorn on the rare occasion that I eat popcorn.

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