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What’s the link between microwave popcorn and cancer?

Popcorn is a ritual part of watching movies. You don’t need to go to the theater to indulge in a bucket of popcorn. Simply stick a bag in the microwave and wait a minute or so for those fluffy buds to pop open.

Popcorn is also low in fat and high in fiber.

Yet a couple of chemicals in microwave popcorn and its packaging have been linked to negative health effects, including cancer and a dangerous lung condition.

Read on to learn the real story behind the claims about microwave popcorn and your health.

The possible link between microwave popcorn and cancer isn’t from the popcorn itself, but from chemicals called perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) that are in the bags. PFCs resist grease, making them ideal for preventing oil from seeping through popcorn bags.

PFCs have also been used in:

  • pizza boxes
  • sandwich wrappers
  • Teflon pans
  • other types of food packaging

The trouble with PFCs is that they break down into perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical that’s suspected to cause cancer.

These chemicals make their way into the popcorn when you heat them up. When you eat the popcorn, they get into your bloodstream and can remain in your body for a long time.

PFCs have been so widely used that about 98 percent of Americans already have this chemical in their blood. That’s why health experts have been trying to figure out whether PFCs are related to cancer or other diseases.

To find out how these chemicals might affect people, a group of researchers known as the C8 Science Panel studied the effects of PFOA exposure on residents who lived near DuPont’s Washington Works manufacturing plant in West Virginia.

The plant had been releasing PFOA into the environment since the 1950s.

After several years of research, the C8 researchers linked PFOA exposure to several health conditions in humans, including kidney cancer and testicular cancer.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted its own review of PFOA from a range of sources, including microwave popcorn bags and nonstick food pans. It found that microwave popcorn could account for more than 20 percent of the average PFOA levels in Americans’ blood.

As a result of the research, food manufacturers voluntarily stopped using PFOA in their product bags in 2011. Five years later, the FDA went even further, banning the use of three other PFCs in food packaging. That means the popcorn you buy today shouldn’t contain these chemicals.

However, since the FDA’s review, dozens of new packaging chemicals have been introduced. According to the Environmental Working Group, little is known about the safety of these chemicals.

Microwave popcorn has also been linked to a serious lung disease called popcorn lung. Diacetyl, a chemical used to give microwave popcorn its buttery flavor and aroma, is linked to severe and irreversible lung damage when inhaled in large amounts.

Popcorn lung makes the small airways in the lungs (bronchioles) become scarred and narrowed to the point where they can’t let in enough air. The disease causes shortness of breath, wheezing, and other symptoms similar to those of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Two decades ago the risk for popcorn lung was mainly among workers in microwave popcorn plants or other manufacturing plants who breathed in large amounts of diacetyl for long periods of time. Hundreds of workers were diagnosed with this disease, and many died.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health studied the effects of diacetyl exposure at six microwave popcorn plants. The researchers found a link between long-term exposure and lung damage.

Popcorn lung wasn’t considered a risk to consumers of microwave popcorn. Yet one Colorado man reportedly developed the condition after eating two bags of microwave popcorn a day for 10 years.

In 2007, major popcorn manufacturers removed diacetyl from their products.

Chemicals linked to cancer and popcorn lung have been removed from microwave popcorn in recent years. Even though some chemicals that remain in the packaging of these products may be questionable, eating microwave popcorn from time to time shouldn’t pose any health risks.

But if you’re still worried or consume a lot of popcorn, there’s no need to give it up as a snack.

Try air-popping popcorn

Invest in an air popper, like this one, and make your own version of movie-theater popcorn. Three cups of air-popped popcorn contains only 90 calories and less than 1 gram of fat.

Make stovetop popcorn

Make popcorn on the stovetop using a lidded pot and some olive, coconut, or avocado oil. Use about 2 tablespoons of oil for every half cup of popcorn kernels.

Add your own flavors

Boost the flavor of air-popped or stovetop popcorn without any potentially harmful chemicals or excessive salt by adding your own toppings. Spray it with olive oil or freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Experiment with different seasonings, such as cinnamon, oregano, or rosemary.

A couple of chemicals that were once in microwave popcorn and its packaging have been linked to cancer and lung disease. But these ingredients have since been removed from most commercial brands.

If you’re still concerned about the chemicals in microwave popcorn, make your own popcorn at home using the stove or an air popper.