The only thing more terrifying than the horror movies you're watching is the contents of that popcorn bowl sitting in your lap. In its truest form, popcorn really is a smart, healthy snack--even a superfood. Its purity went up in flames, though, once food manufacturers got hold of the beloved snack and created convenient, microwavable popcorn bags. Americans woof down a whopping 52 quarts of popcorn a year, and much of that is from microwavable versions. But before you nuke one more bag, you need to know the health risks involved.
Like many fast-food packaging, most microwavable popcorn bags are coated with perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, a class of chemicals linked to various cancers and reproductive system damage. Food manufacturers add the obesity-promoting chemicals to bags to make them more greaseproof, even though these chemicals have been linked to thyroid disease and ADHD, among other ills. Once ingested, PFCs remain in our bodies for a long time, which is another area of concern for these troubling chemicals.
So how do you know if your favorite brand uses these chemical-laden bags? It's tough to know for sure. "Typically, packaged food manufacturers, organic or otherwise, buy their food packaging from another supplier, and they themselves might not know what is the exact composition of food packaging," explains Olga Naidenko, PhD, senior scientist at Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit human and environmental health watchdog group. "This is an area where consumers should be calling for more information."
It's not just the popcorn bag chemicals public health experts are concerned about, either. Harsh chemicals are often applied to popcorn and other pre-packaged foods to fool our taste buds into thinking it's freshly made fare. One of the most acutely toxic popcorn chemicals--diacetyl, the fake flavor used to create a buttery flavor--has been linked to lung damage in microwavable-popcorn factory workers and, in rare cases, in consumers, too. "Researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health discovered that workers inhaling this chemical, as was happening in microwave-popcorn manufacturing, develop severe lung disease, literally losing the ability to breathe," says Naidenko.
The bad PR prompted many manufacturers to phase out this "natural flavoring," although diacetyl replacements are similar chemicals that may also damage lungs.
Genetically engineered food ingredients have never been tested for long-term impact on human health, and some preliminary animal studies suggest GMOs could cause digestive disease, food allergies, and even tumors. If your popcorn is not organic, you're running the risk that the oils and flavoring agents used could contain GMO material.
Industrialized fats like trans fats are a horror to your heart and have even been linked to reproductive problems like endometriosis. Food manufacturers love them because they help keep products shelf-stable, but the dangerous fats aren't always easy to ID on the label.
Even if the nutrition label on your favorite popcorn brand reads "0% trans fat," you may want to take a closer look. Any hydrogenated oils on the label indicate the presence of trans fats. The loophole? If it's less than 0.5 percent, food manufacturers don't have to post trans fat percentage on the label.
Some of the world's leading public health experts will tell you this simple health tip: Never heat up plastic. That's because heating the petrochemicals will accelerate leaching of harmful chemicals into your food. In fact, in 2010, the President's Cancer Panel suggested avoiding plastics to lower your risk of cancer. Unfortunately, plastic liners are now popping up in some microwavable popcorn.
Pop it manually. Good old-fashioned stovetop popcorn really isn't all that inconvenient. Purchase plain organic popcorn kernels at your favorite natural food store and add to a bit of oil or butter in a pot (coconut oil and grass-fed ghee or butter are delicious and contain healthy fats). Cover the pot with a lid and gentle shake over the flame until most of the popping stops. Afterward, add healthy seasonings that suit your taste buds, including non-GMO nutritional yeast, lemon juice, or inflammation-fighting turmeric. "Manually popping is still the most reliable method to know exactly what's in your food," says EWG's Naidenko.
Try DIY microwavable popcorn. Add plain organic popcorn kernels to a plain brown paper lunch bag, fold the top down a few times, and heat up in the microwave. Take the popcorn out when the popping slows down to just a few pops every five seconds. (Check out this homemade microwavable how-to video.)
Go for a more progressive pop. Quinn Popcorn is changing the world of microwavable popcorn--and for the better. This newer brand features organic, Non-GMO Project Verified kernels, no harmful additives, and compostable bags with no chemical or plastic liners, and cold-pressed natural oils. The brand is available at select Whole Foods and natural foods stores. If you're looking for a bag of pre-popped popcorn, try Skinny Pop--it's delicious and Non-GMO Project Verified.