Microwave popcorn is bad. The day I learned that truth was a sad day.
In hindsight I probably should have known after years of eating the stuff that microwave popcorn couldn’t be healthy. One dead giveaway was the neon-no-real-food-is-this-color residue lining the inside of the bag. It seems so obvious now. But I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s when we learned that fat was the devil so fat-free popcorn seemed like a sensible choice at the time.
Let’s break down why microwave popcorn is bad.
Microwave popcorn is bad because it contains varying levels of:
Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)
PFOA is a man-made chemical found in the lining of microwave popcorn bags and is otherwise best known for its role in producing teflon. It is associated with an increased risk of developing several kinds of cancers, especially kidney and bladder cancers. It stays in the body for a long time and is already banned in some European countries (1).
TBHQ is a chemical preservative used in several processed foods like crackers and potato chips, pet food, cosmetics and household products (you know it can’t be good sign when there is overlap between the ingredient list in your floor polish and your hors d’ oeuvre platter). Its consumption “in high doses” is associated with a laundry list of ailments, including asthma, rhinitis, nausea, delirium, hyperactivity and vomiting. Good times, right? To work around this, the FDA limits the allowable amount in manufactured food to .02% – but a. that’s assuming we all stick to the portion size (I have yet to meet the person that eats one serving of popcorn) and b. if TBHQ is safe for consumption then why does the FDA need to set limits in the first place? (2+4)
You should skip microwave popcorn because of Diacetyl.
One of the best parts of popcorn is arguably the buttery aroma that fills the house. When it comes to microwave popcorn, you can thank diacetyl for this. Diacetyl is both a natural bi-product of fermentation (why some beers taste buttery) and a man-made chemical that is added to various food products. Recent research suggests that you may want to think twice before taking a deep whiff next time; synthetic diacetyl is correlated with a series of respiratory ailments collectively referred to as “popcorn lung” (3).
Don’t forget, the GMOs.
Even though the popcorn itself is not GMO, many of the oils and flavor additives used in commercial popcorn brands are. Yet another reason to make it yourself at home; that way you can ensure there are no GMOs and can also control the quantity and quality (4).
Oh yeah, and trans fats.
Even though the FDA has issued restrictions on trans fats, some processed food companies are still taking advantage of a loophole that allows the harmful hydrogenated oils to remain in their products like microwave popcorn. Basically, food companies can cite zero trans fat on the label as long as they keep the amount to less than half a gram per serving. And again, most people eat more than one serving (3 cups) of popcorn at a time (5)
So yeah, microwave popcorn is bad, but thankfully there are some great alternatives to switch out toxic microwave popcorn with something better.
Alternatives to Bad Microwave Popcorn
Make it on the stovetop
All you need is a pot, neutral flavored oil, butter (optional) and whatever seasonings you feel like adding (see suggestions below). Here is a step by step guide. I like to use coconut oil for the flavor and to get those healthy MCTs.
Brown Bag It
My vote is to make it on the stovetop, but if you still want to microwave your popcorn, try this brand or just use a good old fashioned brown paper lunch bag instead. You get to skip the harmful chemicals and this method is even cheaper than store bought. Here’s a tutorial. Basically you just put the kernels inside the bag and fold it a few times to seal it, then microwave for a few minutes until you hear more than a couple of seconds in between popping.
There was a great article in the New York Times a few days ago about the benefits of heirloom popcorn varieties. Heirloom kernels are non-gmo and more nutrient dense, plus you are supporting small farmers in the process. Here are a few sources for heirloom varieties:
Tiny But Mighty
Popcorn Seasoning Ideas
So, are you ready to admit that microwave popcorn is bad and still glory in the goodness of popcorn in a healthier way? I hope so! Here’s to healthy snacking.