Microwave Popcorn: Bad for Your Brain?

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Story Updated: Sep 26, 2012

At the magazine office I work at in New York City, I never know what the day will bring, except for one thing: the late-afternoon aroma of microwave popcorn wafting by my cubbie.

Many of my co-workers are fond of the snack -- and they're hardly in the minority. According to The Popcorn Board, the average American eats 52 quarts a year.

That's why when I recently ran across this study from the University of Minnesota that linked a buttery flavoring in microwave popcorn to Alzheimer's disease, I was alarmed. The researchers found that a compound called diacetyl increases the clumping of a type of protein in the brain that is associated with dementia. So I asked Dawn Jackson Blatner, registered dietitian in Chicago and author of The Flexitarian Diet, whether we should now stop eating popcorn.

"Well, the news coverage of the report made it seem like diacetyl was in a lot of microwave popcorn brands," said Blatner. The good news: "Many companies removed it several years ago when a report linked lung cancer to employees who worked at the plant that made the popcorn," she explained.

"Yes, I remember that," I said, quickly googling. (Sure enough, Pop Weaver ditched the compound in 2007. And, for that matter, so did Orville Redenbacher, Pop Secret and Jolly Time. Other manufacturers may have done it too, but it's hard to tell because diacetyl isn't specifically listed on food labels.)

With this new information, it seemed that microwave popcorn was pretty much off the hook. But then Blatner asked me whether I'd heard of PFCAs. I hadn't -- apparently, PFCAs (perfluorinated compounds) are used when manufacturing microwave popcorn bags to keep the popcorn from sticking to the bag. "There's some research that has linked them to cancer," said Blatner, "though there's nothing definite."

"So do you eat popcorn?" I asked.

Blatner told me she does ... but she air-pops it. "That way, I don't have to worry about any of these chemicals," she said. "And I'm in control of the toppings." Smart -- and a good way to stay healthy and continue eating popcorn. Phew!

Before we parted, I asked Blatner about her favorite kind of popcorn: grated Parmesan cheese and dried oregano, she said. "It tastes like pizza popcorn." She added: "My husband likes his popcorn spicy so he uses a dash of cayenne or chili powder. And my sister-in-law just told me she's started adding sea salt and balsamic vinegar."

Sounds dish! And what's your favorite popcorn topping?

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