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Dangerous fumes

Is microwaved popcorn a hazard to your health? Read on.

By IVAN PENN, The Consumer's Edge
Published September 8, 2007


Most all of us have done it: inhaled the enticing aroma of butter flavored microwave popcorn at home or in the office.

The scent wafts through the air, urging us to grab a handful of the buttery, fluffy stuff.

Now we discover a patient at Denver's National Jewish Medical and Research Center appears to have suffered respiratory problems from sniffing the fumes of butter-flavored popcorn. He did it two or three times a day for a decade.

And all the world's in a panic. Not just because of the one patient, though, but because the consumer case followed lung problems among popcorn plant workers, who suffered from bronchiolitis obliterans or "popcorn lung."

The Denver patient's problem, Dr. Cecile Rose discovered, seemed related to the chemical diacetyl pronounced as di-AS-a-teel, a naturally occurring substance found in and added to many common foods, drinks and snacks. They include butter, cheese, coffee, wine, beer, potato chips and cake mixes.

With diacetyl so common, how concerned should we be about its effects on us, not only from inhaling popcorn but from ingesting it?

I thought I'd talk to Rose, an expert at the Denver center for almost 20 years who specializes in internal, pulmonary and occupational medicine.

Much to my relief, Rose said there's no need to toss all our drinks and snacks for fear of organ failure from diacetyl. "The worry that we have is inhaling the fumes. There's no known risk from ingestion."

So, it's all about the butter-flavored popcorn, which has extremely high levels of diacetyl to maintain flavor through manufacturing, processing and microwaving. Popcorn makers pledged this week to replace diacetyl with something else.

(The question is, do we want them to find a substitute? I mean, really, what will they have us inhaling next?)

The industry action follows prodding from the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States, which released a statement Tuesday: "We cannot be sure that the patient's exposure from the daily preparation of butter-flavored microwave popcorn caused the patient's illness. However, out of an abundance of caution, FEMA recommends ... reducing the diacetyl content of these flavors."

Rose and FEMA spokesman John Hallagan say that the problem with butter-flavored popcorn is that it has been saturated with diacetyl at levels that go beyond what consumers find in other foods and drinks.

Other products do not seem to have the same concern. For example, butter melted in the microwave is not believed to release diacetyl at levels that could cause health concerns.

"It really was about the level of concentration," Rose said. "You're heating up this concentrated butter flavor that contains large amounts of diacetyl."

She says it needs more study.

So here's the edge:

-Understand that diacetyl naturally occurs or is added to most foods that have a buttery flavor. Hallagan, of the flavor and extract association, says diacetyl even naturally occurs in humans. So don't dispose of everything because you see diacetyl in it.

-Take a cue from our former president: Don't inhale. The respiratory health of Rose's patient stabilized after he stopped inhaling the fumes of butter flavored popcorn.

The Consumer's Edge is a twice-monthly column to help consumers in the marketplace. Ivan Penn can be reached at or (727) 892-2332.

Fast facts

What is diacetyl?
Diacetyl is a greenish yellow liquid compound that is responsible for the odor of butter and contributes to the aroma of coffee and tobacco and that is used as a flavoring agent in foods.
Makers have saturated butter-flavored popcorn with diacetyl at levels that far exceed those of regular foods and drinks. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved diacetyl as an additive for flavoring in 1982.

Here is the diacetyl content in butter-flavored popcorn, compared with some other products:
-Butter-flavored popcorn: 5 percent diacetyl content.
-Pound cake: less than 0.5 percent diacetyl content.e_SClB-Strawberry flavoring: less than 0.1 percent diacetyl content.
-Butter: less than 0.1 percent diacetyl content.
Source: Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States

[Last modified September 8, 2007, 01:53:43]

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