Butter scent in popcorn should make you queasy because it's a potentially risky chemical

Real world health advice from a nurse and medical management professional


Do you now what diacetyl is?

Of course you do. You just don’t know the name. You probably take a large dose of it every time you click on the microwave for a bag of buttery popcorn.

Yes, your brain can “visualize” that smell just by saying the phrase “buttery popcorn.” Diacetyl produces that taste and smell by mimicking real butter.

You can’t put butter in microwave popcorn because it probably gets all mushy before the kernels pop. Also, adding butter makes you add pounds.  That’s my theory. Actually I have no idea why you can’t use real butter, other than keeping a perishable product on the shelves gets much harder and far more expensive to manage.

Or maybe somebody thinks real butter is worse for your health than diacetyl-soaked additives. That’s often the selling point. Funny how we believe natural food stuffs are dangerous but artificial additives make us safer.

The problem is that diacetyl creates protein effects in the human brain that look very similar to what happens when Alzheimer’s begins to take hold. Those effects hang around forever. They build up.

The food industry is edging away from diacetyl in popcorn now, but not because they found it exposes you to Alzheimer-related risks. There now are 300 lawsuits nationally, mostly by former workers in popcorn-making plants. Popcorn makers decided the risk to their profit margin was higher than the risk to you and their workers.

Exposure to the chemical was linked to a lung disorder known as bronchiolitis obliterans, which is known as “popcorn lung” because microwave popcorn factory workers often suffer from the disease. Also people who consumed a lot of butter flavored microwave popcorn.

Popcorn plant workers often develop permanent hacking coughs, much as workers in asbestos-making plants once did.

You might be happy that the chemical is going away from popcorn now, but it’s not gone from the food chain. You probably are exposed to it every day because it’s another one of those additives that show up almost everywhere.

Diacetyl also is used in margarines, snack foods, candy, baked goods, pet foods, beer and some chardonnay wines, the researchers said.

If you are a wine drinker, you are told to identify the “buttery notes” as a sign of your wine-tasting acuity. But actually, you’re just smelling diacetyl.  Some chardonnays even advertise themselves with this fermentation-produced scent. Whoa.

Just for the record, the research on this chemical was produced by Robert Vince, director of the Center for Drug Design at the University of Minnesota, and colleagues Swati More and Ashish Vartak. It was published in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology.  

If you are not jittery yet, consider this. The research showed diacetyl easily penetrates the "blood-brain barrier," which keeps many harmful substances from entering the brain.

Once there, you have a toxic health nightmare.



Who am I, and why would a person listen to me? Both fair questions. I’m Christine Hammerlund and I’ve been a nurse for years. I have delivered babies, saved lives, and cared for hundreds of patients through their medical triumphs and tragedies. Now I run Assured Healthcare at http://www.assuredhealthcare.com. We're a multi-million dollar medical staff provider in Illinois. I live in Antioch, Ill. Got health questions for me, whether large or small? I’ll answer. Visit us at http://www.facebook.com/AssuredHealthcareStaffing  and Chrishammerlund@yahoo.com


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Nightcrawler August 11, 2012 at 12:55 AM
So I think readers should know these ingredients actually are no longer in several popcorns out of fairness.
Nancy Nalbandian August 11, 2012 at 06:07 PM
I stopped eating microwave popcorn about a year or two ago because of bad things I read about it. I was eating it every day. Glad to know there are advocates for our health out there, keeping us informed. Dealing with the food industry is like defensive driving. You have to take a proactive approach to your own health, because they sure won't be looking out for it. Profits are the bottom line for them. That even includes the FDA and USDA. The big-time lobbyists control them.
Lauren Peach August 12, 2012 at 07:32 PM
Everything is harmful these days... I'm pretty sure that plastic is a carcinogen. Popcorn kernels have also, strangely enough, been linked to appendicitis. Who knew.
Pamela Kramer August 13, 2012 at 01:38 PM
I still eat Bearitos popcorn. It's the smell of the fake butter in some that makes me sick...
george lemieux August 15, 2012 at 03:39 AM
Great article. Hope you will write someday on artificial sweeteners. Sugar people...sugar is beter than whatever artificial man-made they put in those little envelopes...


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