A bag of popcorn is a treat, and makes movie-watching special. However, microwave popcorn has had some bad press over the years. Questions have been raised as to whether consuming microwave popcorn is linked to cancer, lung damage, and other issues. Consumers may also be wondering about the nutritional content given the often high fat content. Let’s explore some of these concerns.
Chemicals in microwave popcorn
Microwave popcorn bags nearly always contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), chemicals that have been linked to development of cancer, lung disease and weight gain, among other problems.
In addition, volatile butter-flavoring ingredients have also been implicated in health problems. Previous studies have focused on the link between lung disease and exposure to such chemicals. In the year 2000, workers in a microwave popcorn production plant were found to have higher risk of chronic cough, shortness of breath, asthma, chronic bronchitis, and skin problems.
Consumers who do not have the high and frequent exposure to these chemicals of workers may be wondering about popping a bag of popcorn at home. Along these lines, a more recent study examined the relationship between the concentration of chemicals found in microwave popcorn bags in the blood and consumption of restaurant food and popcorn. The researchers found that consumption of popcorn was associated with a significantly higher level of these chemicals in the blood. However, as this was a cross-sectional study, the researchers were not able to make statements about causal relationships between food consumption and PFAS exposures based on this study. Of note, the authors mention that newer replacement PFASs are currently being used, but we don’t know much about the extent of exposure or health effects related to these newer compounds.
Another study aimed to characterize emission of fine and ultrafine particles from microwave popcorn. The researchers note that efforts have been made to characterize particulate matter emissions from many indoor sources such as smoking and cooking; however, others such as microwave popcorn are less well understood. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “particulate matter contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small that they can be inhaled and cause serious health problems.” The study revealed that a large number of particles were released when cooking pre‐packed popcorn in a microwave oven. Popcorn package was found to be a significant factor affecting particulate matter emissions. The authors note that while microwaving one bag of popcorn is not likely to pose a serious health concern, the particle emission may be a concern for heavy, daily consumers.
Calories in microwave popcorn
The calorie content of microwave popcorn differs depending on the amount of fat added. A quick search of the USDA’s FoodData Central shows that one regular microwave bag (85g) contains a whopping 457 calories.
In light of information regarding microwave popcorn, one other option is to prepare your popcorn in your own popcorn maker. This way, you are able to avoid any exposure to chemicals and are also able to control the calorie content in terms of fat from oil or butter added. Another benefit is the avoidance of any preservatives that microwave popcorn may contain.
In addition, it is important to consider that dose is key when considering potential health effects of various compounds in food and food packaging. As other researchers have noted, exposure to large amounts of various chemicals and ingredients that have been studied is generally what presents a problem.
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