Microwave popcorn ingredient linked to Alzheimer’s disease

Lia Grainger
Shine OnAugust 13, 2012

Some bad news for lovers of the light and easy-to-prepare snack that is microwave popcorn.

A new study has found that the chemical ingredient responsible for that oh-so-tempting (but oh-so-fake) butter taste in microwave popcorn may actually speed the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and published in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology, identified a chemical called diacetyl (DA) as the dangerous ingredient.

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According to the authors, DA gives microwave popcorn its distinctive taste and smell and is a natural byproduct in fermented beverages such as beer. Unfortunately, DA also has an architecture that is suspiciously similar to another material that makes beta-amyloid proteins clump together in the brain, and this clumping action is one of the main characteristics of Alzheimer's disease. It was this similarity that motivated the study, which ultimately led to the revelation that DA does in fact increase beta-amyloid clumping.

According to the Alzheimer's Society of Canada, 1 in 11 Canadians over 65 has Alzheimer's or a related dementia, and in 2010, an estimated 500,000 Canadians were living with the disease. So how big of a role could diacetyl play?

Dr. Frédéric Calon is a professor at the Faculty of Pharmacology at Laval University in Québec City, and says it's far too early for the public to be troubled by the study.

"It seems to be a good study, but a study done in the cells," says Calon, referring to the fact that the study was done in-vitro and not in animal or human subjects. "This is still very far away from the brain, and also very far from Alzheimer's disease."

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He also says that many studies in the field of brain research produce evidence in-vitro that cannot be duplicated in the body. "It often turns out to have nothing to do with the disease," says Calon.

Though it may be too early to make the link to Alzheimer's, this isn't the first time DA has made headlines.

Back in 2007, reports of "popcorn lung" hit the news, first in workers at the factories that produced the butter flavouring, and then in an actual patient who reportedly ate "several bags of extra butter-flavoured microwave popcorn" on a daily basis. Apparently airborne DA can cause lung disease, and though reports of "popcorn lung" proved to be limited to industry workers and hardcore popcorn addicts who ritualistically inhaled their popcorn vapours, the bad press was enough for old Orville Redenbacher and the majority of microwave popcorn producers to announce that they would be removing DA from their ingredients.

But the story doesn't end there. In 2009, American government health investigators began reporting that many of the new "diacetyl substitutes" still contained diacetyl.

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So what is a popcorn-loving guy or gal to do? Health Canada suggests that current levels of diacetyl in food is safe.

"Health Canada's scientists have determined that, when diacetyl is added to foods at levels typically associated with its use as a flavouring agent, it is not considered to pose a health risk to consumers," they say in an email to Shine On. They hastened to add that "We continually monitor the scientific literature to identify new results of studies relevant to the safety of food".

So is it possible that this study may one day lead to a change in the government's position on the chemical?

That's for you to decide. But in the meantime, it's probably best to drag that old '80s air-popper you inherited from mom out from under the sink and make yourself a bowl of buttery goodness the old fashioned way. Your brain and lungs might thank you.

Watch the below video for tips on how to make healthier French toast.

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