That question is the gist of this e-mail from a regular reader named Steve: What do you know about the current research that shows carcinogens on the inside of the bags of microwavable popcorn?
According to a news item, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) claims the bags are safe, but I do not trust whatever I hear from them. As someone who has eaten a lot of microwave popcorn, I am concerned. If the claim is true, do you know what the potential danger is?
Well, Steve Ive got good news, and Ive got bad news
Cancer: Inside out
Microwave popcorn bags are made of paper, but the inside of the bag has to be coated with something that will repel grease and moisture to prevent the bag from becoming a soggy mess while its whirling and popping in your microwave oven. When the mix of chemicals used to coat microwave bags is heated, some compounds are known to break down into a substance called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
Heres the bad news: According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, PFOA has been identified as a likely carcinogen.
So how much PFOA migrates from the bag to the popcorn? Thats the question FDA researchers set out to answer in a study published last October. Using a technique known as liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, the FDA team determined that a relatively small amount of PFOA made it into the popcorn.
If we put aside our general wariness of the FDA for the moment and accept this studys finding at face value, then the obvious good news is that youll have to eat quite a bit of microwave popcorn to consume a significant amount of PFOA.
And Im afraid the good news ends there, because at this point its impossible to say how much PFOA might be required to present a cancer danger. But heres the really unsettling part: The FDA team estimates that blood levels of PFOA from microwave popcorn may account for only about 20 per cent of the average level found in blood samples of US consumers. So whether you eat two bags of popcorn a day or none at all, youre probably getting plenty of PFOA exposure from a wide range of other sources.
Cancer: The popcorn plant
Unfortunately, there may be more than just a carcinogen in the popcorn bag.
In an e-Alert way back in 2001, I told you about an incident at a US microwave popcorn plant in which two-dozen workers developed a rare and potentially deadly disease that destroys lung tissue. The culprit: According to a report from the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the disease was triggered by exposure to artificial butter flavouring.
The initial report noted that 130 plant employees had twice the national average rates of bronchitis and asthma and more than three times the rate of obstructed breathing. Ironically, the effects were even worse for people who had never smoked their rates of obstructed breathing were almost 11 times higher than the national average.
NIOSH officials believe that a single ingredient in the artificial butter flavouring is to blame for this rash of respiratory diseases. Its called Diacetyl, and its the chemical compound that gives most artificial butter its flavour and aroma. The widely used (and FDA-approved) additive is also found in many wines, beers, biscuits, chocolates and cheese-flavoured products.
In November 2005, the last of 54 former workers at the popcorn plant settled their lawsuits out of court. Four other cases involving seven workers went to trial and resulted in verdicts that added up to more than $50 million dollars in compensation for the workers.
According to the Wall Street Journal, NIOSH officials believe its safe for consumers to eat microwave popcorn and other artificially flavoured products that have received FDA approval.
Feel reassured? I thought not.
So, between Diacetyl, PFOA and trans fatty acids (oh, you KNOW theyre in there), you may be persuaded to revert to the old stove-top method of making popcorn.
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Perfluorochemicals: Potential Sources of and Migration from Food Packaging Food Additives & Contaminants, Vol. 22, No. 10, October 2005, taylorandfrancis.metapress.com
Its in the Microwave Popcorn, Not the Teflon Pan Rebecca Renner, Science News, 11/16/05, pubs.acs.org
Katie Leaves State for Treatment Kathryn Garcia, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, 5/9/06, caller.com