Skip to content

Greasy Fingers Smearing Shabby Clothes

October 6, 2011

Any Jethro Tull fans out there?

Earlier this week I was chatting with Amanda Talar and Alan Ilagan on Twitter. Recently I’ve been helping the two of them eat better by insisting that Amanda not cook eggs in the microwave and that Alan eschew bagel sandwiches.

While celebrating a small victory in getting Amanda to put down the egg and step away from the microwave, I went a step further in trying to get that infernal contraption out of her life. My hashtag had some immediate repercussions.

Anyhow I promised to help the two of them come up with non-lethal alternatives to microwave popcorn (which apparently is one of Alan’s four major food groups). So why did that make me think of Aqualung?

Perhaps you’ve never heard of popcorn lung. But as far as I can tell it’s a real thing. Maybe this will get you off of microwave popcorn, and from there, I can suggest an easy and delicious alternative.

It first came to my attention from a 2007 piece in the New York Times.

You can read the whole piece if you like, but here’s the important part. They look at the chemical diacetyl that adds the butter flavor to microwave popcorn. While it does occur naturally in other foods we consume,

Heated diacetyl becomes a vapor and, when inhaled over a long period of time, seems to lead the small airways in the lungs to become swollen and scarred. Sufferers can breathe in deeply, but they have difficulty exhaling. The severe form of the disease is called bronchiolitis obliterans or “popcorn workers’ lung,” which can be fatal.

Previously only those who had worked in microwave popcorn factories were afflicted with lung problems as a result of this flavoring agent. But the article tells the story of one consumer who ate two bags of the stuff a day for ten years. Part of his enjoyment was taking a big whiff of the steaming stuff as it came out of the microwave.

Luckily it was caught in time.

The good news for microwave popcorn lovers is that manufacturers started pursuing diacetyl substitutes—butter flavoring agents that could even be listed as a natural flavoring. But the bad news is that it’s still apparently diacetyl.

If you too are confused by this, you can read the full article here.

The article also tells the story of a woman who spent five years working for Blockbuster Video. Every Friday and Saturday, it was her job to pop 30 bags of microwave popcorn. This was done not in a large well-ventilated space, but in a small back room. The article continues:

Last year, a lung biopsy at the Mayo Clinic confirmed that she had full-blown bronchiolitis obliterans. She is now waiting for a lung transplant.

The good news is that limits of chemical exposure are now being drafted to protect workers, so if you cannot walk away from your microwave popcorn habit at least you won’t be hurting others.

So here’s my point. Microwave popcorn smells nasty because it’s nasty stuff. Natural and artificial flavors may be “safe” in small doses, but the smart call is to avoid them in lieu of eating food that actually contains good flavor all on its own.

And if you want to make popcorn, make popcorn. It’s easy.

Mark Bittman has the recipe for it here. It takes literally just a couple minutes longer, and it does result in a pot to clean. However, you are not ingesting all kinds of nasty stuff, and you are not creating more needless landfill waste.

If you do insist on microwaving popcorn, Bittman has a recipe for that too. But not owning a microwave, I haven’t tried it, so I cannot vouch for its goodness.

I say bring an electric burner, a pot, some oil, salt, and dried corn to work for your daily popcorn fix. Someone in HR might tell you it’s dangerous to cook on an electric burner in the office. If they do, you send them to me, and we can talk a bit more about diacetyl.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2011 10:26 am

    Now here is a topic where I am right in line with your fussiness. Someone gave us a Whirley-Pop as a wedding gift, and if we could remember who it was, we would thank them for all the delicious stove top popcorn their gift has brought us over the past decade. Of course a regular pot works fine, but the Whirley-Pop is a lot of fun, and pretty much impossible to screw up.

    • October 6, 2011 1:32 pm

      I second the Whirley-Pop. It’s revolutionized my life.

  2. Jenna permalink
    October 6, 2011 10:31 am

    i often make popcorn on the stove top suing the method in the Times article at home and the brown paper lunch bag microwave method at work. The microwave method really does work! Perfect for when you want a quick single serving and no mess. The only trick is that you really have to pay attention to it. I usually pull it a few seconds before it’s really all popped. If you let it go even a few seconds too long, you end up with a of bunch of burnt popcorn and the dreaded burnt popcorn stench that can send coworkers into a rage.

  3. October 6, 2011 10:34 am

    Thanks for this. I’d like a follow-up with some information on movie popcorn – that’s where my real addiction lies. (I do the microwave stuff about once a year when I’m desperate, so I’m not so concerned, given such limited exposure.) But the amount of movie popcorn I ingest in a year could be what leads to my demise… (and I’m talking Regal, not Spectrum.)

  4. Kerosena permalink
    October 6, 2011 10:36 am

    The microwave/brown paper bag method is much better than packaged microwave popcorn, but it falls a bit short of popcorn cooked in a pot on the stove.

  5. October 6, 2011 10:42 am

    I’ve done the brown bag in the microwave technic, it works but I’m always left with way too many unpopped kernels. I bought a Whirley Pop last year and it’s completely changed my popcorn eating experience.

  6. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    October 6, 2011 10:56 am

    Don’t like it; never eat it.

  7. -R. permalink
    October 6, 2011 11:06 am

    What “food” item, wrapped in hermetically sealed plastic, with a list of ingredients that reads like a speech therapy screening exam and expires sometime in the mid 20s could possibly be good for you? That’s not food, that’s chemistry.

  8. October 13, 2011 11:41 am

    Another vote for the Whirley-Pop. It’s the best.


  1. Snacks: In which I discover the Whirley Pop from Wabash Valley Farms » The Life of My Mouth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: