Reader Question: I heard that a chemical in microwave popcorn causes lung disease. How great is the risk, really? Do I need to stop eating it?
On Call Response: The chemical you are talking about is called diacetyl, an additive used in artificial butter flavoring. Repeated exposure can cause a serious lung condition called bronchiolitis obliterans (a.k.a. popcorn lung)—but we used to think that it only affected people who worked in popcorn factories. Recently, however, a man who simply enjoyed eating popcorn at home developed the disease.
Before you panic, you should know that this man ate two or more bags of microwave popcorn every day for more than a decade, so if you enjoy it on occasion, you're probably not in any great danger. It's also worth noting that not all microwave popcorn contains diacetyl, but you might not be able to tell by looking at the ingredients list (if you see "other natural and artificial flavors," diacetyl might—or might not—be in there). The good news is that some popcorn brands (such as Orville Redenbacher, Act II, Pop Secret and Jolly Time) have already agreed to remove diacetyl from their products. Other companies are expected to follow suit, so stay tuned.
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