Can Microwave Popcorn Give You Cancer?

Date: 6 June, 2006
That question is the gist of this e-mail from an HSI member 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.


Perfluorochemicals: Potential Sources of and Migration from Food Packaging Food Additives & Contaminants, Vol. 22, No. 10, October 2005,
Its in the Microwave Popcorn, Not the Teflon Pan Rebecca Renner, Science News, 11/16/05, Katie Leaves State for Treatment Kathryn Garcia, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, 5/9/06,
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  1. A J Rowling Posted March 2, 2011

    I have read the ingredients list on my OR Lime and Salt popcorn and there is no mention of Diacetyl, PFOA, have standards not changed since 2001?

  2. Darius M Posted March 2, 2011

    Can';t eat popcorn. Luckily. It stick between my teeth and irritattes my gum. Maybe it is because of this stuff in it?

  3. Qris Posted December 22, 2010

    Everything seems to be bad for us, because corporations do not give a care about the health of the herd. Until we unite as people of the United States, we are nothing more than cattle to the money hoarding capatilists!

  4. Mandy Posted July 18, 2010

    Oven Popped is best – these fast food gimmicks tatse like plastic anyway.

  5. Phyllis Gevekoth Posted May 20, 2010

    Thanks for the info.Very helpful. I too enjoy popcorn and will enjoy it more now.

  6. susie strickland Posted April 15, 2010

    Air poppers are really easy, clean and seem healthy
    I recommend them

  7. Danny Posted April 15, 2010

    Everything just seems to be bad for us…

  8. Maureen Posted March 8, 2010

    I have been eating the 90 calorie mini bags of popcorn 5 days a week for just over 3 years. I go to the doctors once a year for check up, x-rays and blood work. Not a sign of any cancer. Until there is proof that someone has actually died from lung cancer while eating microwave popcorn, then I will believe it.

  9. cassie Posted February 22, 2010

    Wow. This was an eye opening article. I’m in college and live in a dorm room. Microwave popcorn is a really easy snack and I probably eat it 4 times a week. Now I am definitely going to think twice. Thanks.

  10. teresa Posted February 19, 2010

    Nice article. Thank you.

  11. teresa Posted February 19, 2010

    Nice article. Thank you.

  12. Alyssa Posted February 15, 2010

    My husband alerted me to this study. While I tend to take most of his alerts with a grain of salt, I decided to try making popcorn the old fashion way, and now I won’t go back! My three-year-old loves to help. She puts the single kernel in the pan and then listens for the tell-tale pop. Then we add the rest of the kernels and she loves to hear it pop! I melt a little butter and pour it over the popcorn, add a little sea salt, and it tastes so much better than that artificial microwave stuff, and it’s so much more fun!

  13. Melody Posted August 27, 2009

    My husband refuses to eat ANYTHING from the microwave, I argued that popcorn was harmless… wrong again! No wonder he’s much healthier than me!

  14. Mark Bennett Posted February 25, 2009

    This has really made me worried, since I love popcorn and it is almost like an addiction for me – it sounds absolutely pathetic I know but I am like a little childish boy when I can’t get my popcorn-fix! Thanks for the info. Definitely food for thought. Mark.

  15. Splendid Maria Shabala Posted February 24, 2009

    Thanks for the brilliant read! I will watch out because I eat so much microwave popcorn and I know it makes me fat and moody. Good Read. Thanks again.

  16. Carrie Posted January 12, 2009

    Yep – while they figure out whether microwaved popcorn causes cancer, I am enjoying a far healthier and more eco friendly product – corn popped on the stove!

  17. Scott Newman Posted May 27, 2008

    I am so happy to provide everyone with a simple, easy, cheap solution to the pre-packaged popcorn problem. Buy standard popcorn kernels. Put them in a standard, brown paper lunch bag and tape it shut. Put it in the microwave for the same amount of time as is your habit. You’re done!

    Want butter flavor? Well, melt some butter in a teacup and pour it on top. Now, go home and eat!

    – Scott Newman

  18. Scott Newman Posted May 27, 2008

    I am so happy to provide everyone with a simple, easy, cheap solution to the pre-packaged popcorn problem. Buy standard popcorn kernels. Put them in a standard, brown paper lunch bag and tape it shut. Put it in the microwave for the same amount of time as is your habit. You’re done!

    Want butter flavour? Well, melt some butter in a teacup and pour it on top. Now, go home and eat!

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