National Consumers League

Popcorn Lung part two: Are Popcorn Makers Doing Enough?


We recently blogged about popcorn lung, a disease associated with exposure to a chemical found in the production of butter-flavored popcorn and other products. Here's part two.

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Given NCL’s view that consumers care about more than just the bottom line when it comes to the products they purchase, we decided to conduct an informal phone survey to see what kind of information popcorn makers were providing consumers about the safety of their products. Last week we called six different makers of microwave popcorn, using the toll-free customer service phone numbers we found on the box. These included Con Agra (makers of Act II, Orville Redenbacher and Jiffy Pop brands), JollyTime, Pop Weaver, Little Bear Foods, Newman’s Own, and Black Jewell. One of the companies had a recorded greeting reassuring callers that microwave popcorn is safe for consumers, while advising that the company is phasing out the use of diacetyl because of concerns about worker health. None of the popcorn boxes we bought named “diacetyl” in the ingredient list. Instead, diacetyl is included in the catch-all term “natural and artificial flavorings”. This is what we learned:

  • All companies told us that any butter-flavored microwave popcorn contains diacetyl, although the ingredient list does not name the chemical.
  • All companies claim diacetyl is safe for consumers.
  • All companies told us they would begin phasing out diacetyl, some as quickly as in the next month.
  • Popcorn already popped in bags doesn’t contain diacetly.

Despite their claims that diacetyl is safe for consumers, we are leery of butter-flavored microwave popcorn. The industry’s claims that consumers aren’t at risk from casual consumption aren’t convincing, because the assertion is not based on research on the consumer effect of airborne diacetyl. Just ask the Denver man who ate several bags a day and was diagnosed with diminished lung capacity caused by breathing the microwave fumes. Tests on the air in his home were said to yield surprising high levels of diacetyl. Diacetyl is being phased out of the production of microwave popcorn; in the meantime, for popcorn lovers, there are many good alternatives to microwave butter-flavor popcorn available to consumers right now.

We recommend that consumers call the companies and get their own answers about butter flavor microwave popcorn. The numbers are on the box. Ask about consumer exposure to diacetyl and any hazards that might present, and while you're at it, ask what they are doing to reduce worker exposure to the chemical while they are phasing it out of their microwave popcorn.