It’s movie night! So you throw a bag of popcorn into the microwave and before you know it, that warm, buttery scent is wafting through your home. It sure is convenient (and yummy), but is microwave popcorn healthy?

It turns out, most microwave popcorn comes with chemicals that are known to cause long-term health problems in humans. This article will explore what those specific chemicals are, and then we’ll take a look and the healthiest microwave popcorn and other (also very yummy) alternatives.

What is Popcorn?

It might seem silly because so many people grew up eating this crunchy snack as an important part of movie night and baseball games, but what actually is popcorn? Is popcorn really corn? Is it made from the same thing as corn on the cob?

Well, just like there are different kinds of dogs and different kinds of lettuce, there are different kinds of corn too. There is sweet corn, which we know as corn on the cob. There is field corn, which is usually fed to animals. There is colorful flint corn, which is a hard version that comes in lots of different colors and is often used as decoration in the fall. And then there is popcorn, which is the only corn that pops! (So no, you cannot put just any type of corn in the microwave and expect to get popcorn.) All of these types of corn are in the same species (Zea mays), but they are different subspecies.

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Where Did Popcorn Come From? (A Brief History of Popcorn)

It’s hard to say where popcorn originated because it’s been around for a really long time, particularly in Central and South America. Archeologists say popcorn has been found in 1,000-year-old Peruvian tombs, and Mexican funeral urns from around 300 A.D. are decorated with maize gods with popcorn adorning their headdresses. There is evidence that Indigenous Aztec communities used popcorn not only to eat but also for decorating, accessorizing their clothing, and for use in ceremonies and rituals.

Some type of popcorn was most likely eaten by Native Americans long before colonists came to settle on Turtle Island, but it’s tough to say just how far back Indigenous Americans started heating up their corn to create the snack. The oldest evidence of popcorn in what is now the United States was found in a dry cave in New Mexico in 1948. The popcorn was carbon-dated to be approximately 5,600 years old!

Colonists adopted many of the Native Americans’ farming practices and foods, and that includes popcorn. French explorers wrote about the Iroquois nation (which was spread throughout the Great Lakes region) popping corn kernels in pottery jars filled with heated sand. So it’s likely that the popcorn as we know it today originated in the upper mid-East.

By the 1800s, popcorn was a popular snack in the U.S. In 1885, the first commercial popcorn machine was invented in Chicago by Charles Cretors. An iteration of a peanut roasting machine he had, the machine was powered by steam, which allowed the heat to be dispersed evenly. This allowed Cretors to sell popcorn as a street vendor.

Popcorn street vendors rose to popularity around the same time movie theaters began popping up, and vendors could often be found right outside the theaters. This is how movies and popcorn became inseparable!

Popcorn’s popularity slumped when the TV was invented and fewer people went out to the theater. That was, of course, until 1981, when microwave popcorn was invented, sending at-home popcorn consumption through the roof.

What's the link between microwave popcorn and cancer?

What is Microwave Popcorn?

There are two primary methods to popping popcorn: dry and wet.

The dry method of popping corn is the older one. It uses dry heat like fire (or nowadays, an air popper).

The wet method, however, uses oil and/or steam to distribute the heat among all the kernels, resulting in more popping. Traditional microwave popcorn, along with movie theater popcorn and commercial popcorn makers, all use the wet method. (Although, you can use the dry method in the microwave as well — more on that below.)

What Is The Difference Between Microwave Popcorn And Regular Popcorn?

When it comes to the type of corn used, there is no major difference between microwave popcorn and other types of popcorn. Microwave popcorn, however, very often contains additives that air-popped popcorn doesn’t, which we’ll discuss more in a minute.

Why All The Bad Rumors About Microwave Popcorn?

Is Microwave Popcorn Bad For You?

In recent decades, microwave popcorn has come under fire as being an unhealthy snack that can cause serious and long-term health issues. Generally, microwave popcorn is not good for you. That said, there are certain brands that are better, safer, and healthier than others. So before we look at healthier microwave popcorn brands, let’s look at some more of the toxic ingredients that are often used in microwave popcorn.

Does Microwave Popcorn Cause Cancer?

Part of the danger in microwave popcorn comes not from the actual corn itself, but from the bag. The bags are commonly lined with chemicals called perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), which repel grease so that the oils don’t soak through the bag.

PFCs are an umbrella for a group of very widely used chemicals that include PFAs, PFOs, and PFOAs. This class of chemicals is not only used in microwave popcorn bags but other food packaging, non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing and gear, and more.

These chemicals are known to build up in the body and cause cancer, infertility, and other serious and long-term health issues. The bad news is that these chemicals do not break down in the environment, and humans can’t actually detoxify these chemicals from their bodies. These chemicals have been found in 99% of Americans’ blood, and in a more recent study, in 100% of sampled breastmilk.

To get a good (and also entertaining) primer on PFOAs, check out the documentary The Devil We Know (available on Netflix) and the movie Dark Waters. These are both incredibly well-made films that expose the chemical company, DuPont’s, role in studying and covering up their knowledge of how dangerous these “forever chemicals” are, and the resulting lawsuits that came from the scandal. Although this family of chemicals is found in all kinds of consumer products, the focus of these films is on Teflon (the toxic non-stick cookware).

Here’s the crazy part: following the DuPont scandal, the FDA did its own investigation into PFOAs to find out where they’re coming from. The results of their investigation concluded that microwave popcorn bags could account for more than 20% of the PFOAs in Americans’ blood! When considering the number of consumer products that contain PFOAs, that’s a big number.

In 2011, many microwave popcorn manufacturers voluntarily removed certain PFOAs in their products. Then in 2016, the FDA banned the use of three different long-chain PFCs. This is definitely progress to celebrate, and it might mean that microwave popcorn is safer now than it was just a decade or two ago.

However, unfortunately, manufactures have historically just replaced one toxic ingredient for another very similar one in order to get around a ban such as this one. For example, DuPont now uses a substance called GenX instead of polytetrafluoroethylene, the previous toxic PFOA chemical they used to coat their Teflon pans. In lab tests, GenX has been found to cause the same problems as polytetrafluoroethylene.

Similarly, when Bisphenol A (BPA) became infamously linked to various health concerns, manufacturers began using very similar materials like BPS, while labeling their products “BPA-free.”

So, just because many of these PFCs are now outlawed in food manufacturing doesn’t mean their replacements are any safer.

Is microwave popcorn linked to other health problems?

Does Microwave Popcorn Cause Other Health Problems?

So we know that microwave popcorn can potentially cause cancer, but what about other health concerns? Let’s look at one other very common and toxic microwave popcorn additive: diacetyl.

Diacetyl

Another ingredient of major concern in microwave popcorn is diacetyl, which is an artificial flavor that gives popcorn that super-buttery taste. Diacetyl is also used in other products like margarine, baked goods, candy, e-cigarettes, and even pet food.

Diacetyl’s problems first became known when they were found to cause severe respiratory disease (obliterative bronchiolitis, also known as “popcorn lung“) in employees who worked in microwave popcorn and food-flavoring factories.

Then later, diacetyl was also found linked to Alzheimer’s disease. As it turns out, diacetyl can lead to an increase in something called “beta-amyloid clumping.” When amyloid proteins clump together in the brain, they form plaques that are toxic to nerve cells and are a tell-tale sign of Alzheimer’s.

Not only that, but diacetyl was also found to blunt the effects of glyoxalase I, which is a protein that protects nerve cells. That means diacytel can both cause negative effects in the brain while also inhibiting the brain’s protective functions.

Around 2007, most large microwave popcorn manufacturers stopped using diacetyl, but unfortunately, they just replaced it with a chemical that’s also a known toxin called 2,3-pentanedione. The two chemicals are very similar in structure, with the only real difference being that the U.S. Department of Labor has set a slightly higher recommended exposure limit (REL) for 2,3-pentanedione.

tBHQ

Tertiary Butylhydroquinone (tBHQ) is a preservative that’s found in some microwave popcorn brands (like Act II) that is made from butane (a toxic gas!). It’s been found to be linked to things like cancer, ADHD, asthma, allergies, and more.

Pesticides & Co.

Then, of course, there are the herbicides and pesticides that are used to grow most popcorn. These chemicals are known carcinogens, so buy organic when you can!

Some (Kind of) Good News

So far, microwave popcorn is looking super dangerous. But the good news is that it’s actually not as bad as it used to be.

Most microwave popcorn used to contain partially hydrogenated oils, which are absolutely terrible for your health and contributed to about 50,000 early deaths annually. Since the FDA banned these trans fats in 2018, most microwave popcorn now contains palm oil. Although palm oil seems to be better for human health, the palm oil industry is rife with environmental destruction. (But that’s a different discussion for another day.)

Let’s take another additive: Proply Gallate. This used to be used as a preservative in PopSecret’s microwave popcorn varieties, even after it was phased out in many other countries. This ingredient has been linked to stomach issues, breathing problems, and skin rashes. It seems that most microwave popcorn brands have given this ingredient up, but it’s still one to look out for.

Many of the mysterious artificial dyes and flavors have been replaced by more natural and transparent ingredients like annatto and paprika, but you’ll probably still notice “Natural Flavors” on many microwave popcorn brands. The problem with the “Natural Flavors” label is that it allows manufacturers to hide all kinds of things under that umbrella without actually disclosing what they are. Some “natural flavors” are completely safe, while others have been linked to health concerns… but it’s practically impossible to know.

Is Microwave Popcorn GMO?

A LOT of corn in the United States (92% in 2020) is genetically modified. So it might surprise you to find out that the species of corn that’s used for popcorn is actually NOT GMO!

That’s the good news. The bad news is that more often than not, microwave popcorn comes with added ingredients that ARE genetically modified. If you check the ingredient label on the side of a typical box of microwave popcorn, you’ll likely see things like palm oil and soybean oil, which may very likely come from GMO crops.

Is There a Microwave Popcorn Without Chemicals?

SO, now that we’ve gone through all of the problematic chemicals that are often found in microwave popcorn, you’re probably wondering: is there any microwave popcorn that’s safe!? Is there a chemical-free microwave popcorn?

Yes! So far, we’ve found two brands of microwave popcorn that boast chemical-free bags:

Skinny Pop

Skinny Pop’s microwave popcorn is not organic (although they do have an organic bagged version), but it is one of the safest brands of microwave popcorn in terms of the chemicals and packaging. Their “chemical-free bag” has NO PFOAs, and it also contains NO diacetyl. Skinny Pop’s microwave popcorn comes in two flavors: Sea Salt and (non-dairy) Butter. Here are the ingredients:

Sea Salt: Popcorn, Sunflower Oil, Palm Oil, and Sea Salt
Butter: Popcorn, Sunflower Oil, Palm Oil, Sea Salt, Natural Non-Dairy Butter Flavor, and Lactic Acid

Black Jewell

Black Jewell’s corn is grown, harvested, and packaged in the U.S.A. on family farms. It comes in “chemical-free bags” in several different varieties:

No salt/No oil: Popcorn is the only ingredient
Natural: Popcorn, palm oil, sea salt
Touch of Butter: Popcorn, palm oil, sea salt, natural butter flavor, beta carotene
Sweet & Salty: Popcorn, palm oil, sea salt, rebaudioside a
Simply Sea Salt: Popcorn, palm oil, sea salt

With other brands, it’s virtually impossible to know whether or not it’s truly free of chemicals. Even if the ingredient label is “clean” of potentially toxic ingredients, there is almost no way of knowing the truth about what the packaging is lined with.

What Is The Healthiest Microwave Popcorn?

IF you’re still going to eat microwave popcorn, there are definitely some brands that are much better than others. Here are our recommended brands:

Is Jiffy Pop Healthier Than Microwave Popcorn?

Jiffy Pop can be super fun to pop over the stove or the fire, but it’s really not any healthier or safer than microwave popcorn, unfortunately. As of 2021, it still contains tBHQ as a preservative, which is linked to all kinds of health problems, like cancer, ADHD, asthma, allergies, and more.

Not only that, but we still have the PFC issue. There is really no way of knowing whether or not Jiffy Pop’s packaging is lined with carcinogenic chemicals. If you’re going to do stove-top or over-the-fire popcorn, there definitely better alternatives! (More on that below.)

Can You Eat Expired Microwave Popcorn?

Expiration dates exist for a reason, so it’s not recommended that you eat expired microwave popcorn. After a certain amount of time, ingredients and packaging can start breaking down. That means you might have more chemicals (like the lining on the bag) leaching into the food, the fat content could become rancid, or you could have mold growing.

If stored under the right conditions (like unopened in a dark, room temperature cabinet), many foods are probably safe to eat within a short window after the expiration date, but do so at your own discretion. Whether or not popcorn is still safe to eat also depends on whether the popcorn is dry or wet, what kind of container it’s in, and whether it’s been opened or not. For example, plain, dry popcorn kernels will last the longest when stored properly (usually 1 to 2 years).

why is microwave popcorn bad for you

Can Regular Popcorn Be Microwaved?

Yes! You can actually put plain, regular popcorn kernels in the microwave for a much healthier alternative to the conventional bags of microwave popcorn. You don’t even need any oil.

You can do it with either a paper bag (like a lunch sack or a grocery bag) or a microwave-safe (read: plastic-free) bowl and plate. (Or, you can buy this one which is silicone and specially made for popping corn.)

If you’re using a paper bag, first make sure there are no holes in the bag and that there aren’t any staples or other metal pieces anywhere.

The amount of kernels to use will differ depending on the size of the container, but usually somewhere around 1/3 of a cup will work. Dump the kernels into the bowl and cover with the plate, or pour them into your paper bag and fold over the top down a few times to hold it closed.

The most important part about putting regular popcorn in the microwave to make sure and listen for when it’s ready! When the popping slows to about 2 seconds in between pops, that’s when it’s time to take the popcorn out in order to prevent it from getting burnt. The exact length of time will depend on your microwave and container size, but usually between 2 and 4 minutes in the microwave will do the trick.

Other Ways To Cook Microwave Popcorn

If you have some bags of microwave popcorn laying around but are without a microwave, you can rip open the bag and pop it on the stove instead. Just make sure you have a big pot with a lid. You shouldn’t need to add any oil since there is probably already some that came on the popcorn. (Although, if it’s oil-free microwave popcorn, you may want to add a bit of olive or avocado oil to prevent sticking.) Here is how to cook popcorn on a stove properly.

You can also pop popcorn over an open fire or on a grill!

is microwave popcorn healthy

What Is The Healthiest Overall Popcorn?

Overall, the best popcorn is the kind you make at home with regular organic popcorn kernels. Even though microwave popcorn might be convenient and save a little bit of time, making popcorn over the stove can be a fun activity with just a small learning curve!

We recommend using one of these Original Whirley Pop stovetop popcorn makers—just add a little bit of avocado or olive oil and some sea salt, and get whirling!

Or, if you want to go completely oil-free, go for this air popcorn maker, which uses only hot air to pop your corn.

Conclusion

So, is microwave popcorn healthy? Unfortunately, most of it is not. The bags often come lined with toxic chemicals, and many brands still contain additives that can lead to longterm health concerns (although some of these ingredients have been largely cleaned up over the past decade).

However, there are plenty of healthier brands to choose from. If you’re going to go for microwave popcorn, choose Skinny Pop or Black Jewell. Or better yet, just skip the bag and use regular organic popcorn kernels!


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Image credits: Gustavo Fring, Nathan Dumlao, Ketut Subiyanto, product images belong to respective brands