Skip to content

Is Microwave Popcorn Toxic?

Microwave popcorn used to be one of the unhealthiest grocery products you could buy—but is it still?

The short answer to the question posed above is "no," but that doesn't mean microwave popcorn has always been free of harmful additives and chemicals. In fact, until a few years ago, the popular supermarket product was laced with multiple substances that have been proven to have a negative impact on your overall health in a variety of ways. Thankfully, the microwave popcorn that's sold today is much healthier than the same product that was on the market about three years ago, but the pre-packaged movie snack still has some improving to do before you should stock your cabinets with it and start snacking away.

Keep reading for more info on the evolution of microwave popcorn, and get some nutritious snack ideas with help from this list of 40 Healthy Snack Ideas to Keep You Slim!

Microwave Popcorn And Diacetyl

Diacetyl is an organic compound and flavoring chemical with an intensely buttery flavor. Though it naturally occurs in foods such as butter, honey, and beer, it's also added (in higher concentrations) to items including butter-flavored microwave popcorn, potato chips, and e-cigarettes, and has been linked to severe respiratory disease. Toxicology studies have shown that vapors from heated butter flavorings can cause damage to airways in animals, and, according to the CDC, additional research has shown that when humans are continuously exposed to diacetyl fumes (such as those working in microwave popcorn plants) they can develop what's known as bronchiolitis obliterans or "popcorn lung." Popcorn lung can be dangerous because it causes scarring of the tiny air sacs in the lungs resulting in the thickening and narrowing of the airways.

While diacetyl has been formally banned as a flavoring and e-liquid in the United Kingdom, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recognizes the substance as "generally safe for consumption." However, given the consumer concern that diacetyl has been linked to serious respiratory issues, manufacturers of butter-flavored popcorn, including Pop Weaver, Pop Secret, Trail's End, and ConAgra Foods (the maker of Orville Redenbacher's and Act II), have since removed it as an added ingredient from their products.

Microwave Popcorn And Trans Fats

In addition to diacetyl, the microwave popcorn of the not-so-distant past also contained a series of trans fats that can be detrimental to your health. Trans fats, which are created by partially hydrogenating vegetable oils, are typically found in processed foods with hydrogenated oils and are beloved by manufacturers because they increase the shelf life of certain items. Research has shown trans fats have been linked to cardiovascular disease, and, as noted in the journal Obesity, they've been found to pack on the belly fat in monkeys.

Thankfully, based on an FDA ban that is set to go into effect July 2018, trans fats are no longer found in microwave popcorn.

Microwave Popcorn And PFOA

And as if microwave popcorn itself wasn't unhealthy enough, until recently many microwave popcorn bags were actually lined with a carcinogenic substance known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOA is an industrial non-stick chemical used in everything from coatings for fabrics, furniture, and carpets to cookware (think Teflon) and food packaging, and microwave popcorn manufacturers loved it because it prevented the popcorn from sticking to the bag and stopped grease from leaking through.

Unfortunately, PFOA has been linked to cancer in both animals and humans. According to a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, there's an association between PFOA exposure and kidney and testicular cancers in individuals who lived near and worked at a plant that produced the chemical. Furthermore, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that non-stick chemicals in popcorn bags significantly damage the immune system, which can cause a wide range of other health problems.

However, per the FDA, harmful C8 compounds such as PFOA have been phased out and removed from the marketplace over the past several years. Unfortunately, research published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found that many substances used instead of PFOA could also be detrimental.

In other words, though microwave popcorn today is much healthier than the stuff sold just three or so years ago, you're still better off going the DIY route and air popping some yourself in a bit of olive oil. For a flavor boost, feel free to add a dash of spices such as cayenne pepper or cinnamon. For more flavorful food ideas, check out these 20 Quick Recipes Made with Frozen Foods!

Editor's note: This article was originally published in April 2016, and has since been updated as of August 2018.