Is Microwave Popcorn Bad For You?

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Key Takeaways

  • Eating microwave popcorn comes with several potential inherent risks, such as chemicals like PFOAS and PFAS that are emanated from poor packaging and the artificial aroma of butter and other synthetic flavorings. With this being said, you’d have to eat massive amounts of popcorn multiple times a week for a very long time before directly contaminating the body to any worrisome degree.
  • Microwave popcorn, even the dodgiest brands, are generally safe to eat if you only snack on microwave popcorn every now and then. Stick to reputable food manufacturers only and perhaps consider switching to a healthier popping method like stove-top or air popping for the safest, healthiest solution to quelling popcorn cravings.

Popcorn is one of the healthiest snacks around, and microwave popcorn is undeniably convenient. Unfortunately, many question whether or not microwave popcorn is bad for you. To some, the mere connotation of microwave radiation interacting with food itself is a huge red flag. While microwave technology, especially in its current state, is proven to be food-safe, cooking the microwave does present its own set of minor considerations. We’ll be taking you through a complete look at whether or not microwave popcorn is healthy and what you should keep in mind when picking out the perfect corn kernels and/or popping method for your home. 

Is Microwave Popcorn Bad For Your Health?

The short answer is no. Microwave popcorn eaten infrequently is not bad for your health. By itself, popcorn popped in the microwave does not come with any inherent risks or adverse health effects when eaten infrequently. However, prepackaged microwave popcorn ready to unfold and nuke often comes with harmful chemicals thanks to the byproducts produced when artificial flavorings are microwaved. Microwave popcorn also typically has more fat and is higher in calories which is why many health-conscious individuals opt for stovetop popping instead. 

Does Microwave Popcorn Cause Cancer?

Any reputable microwave popcorn brand will be free from harmful packaging and any additives like diastyle that have potential adverse health effects. The only time that popcorn made in the microwave comes with a potential risk of containing carcinogenic agents is if the bag contains perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Common PFAS include PFOA, PFOSS, perfluorononanoic acid, perfluorodecanoic acid and perfluorohexanesulfonic acid. Water and grease-resistant coated paper bags used to pop microwave popcorn often contain high levels of PFAS, while many other nonstick household products and fast food packaging also include this hard-to-detox substance. 

Carcinogenic Packaging Risk

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classed perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and both per- and poly-fluoroalkyl (PFAS) as potentially carcinogenic for humans after finding a close association between kidney and testicular cancer in people heavily exposed to both substances. There are also studies tying both chemicals to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma as well as pancreatic, breast, colorectal, and ovarian cancer.  This means that consuming poorly produced microwave popcorn housed in coated packaging regularly does indeed increase the risk of cancer minimally. 

Are All Microwave Popcorn Bags Toxic?

In 2011, due to the overwhelming evidence established by widespread food research, food manufacturers largely stopped using substances containing PFAS. In the beginning, PFOAS were eliminated from plastic bags and slowly started being removed from all packaging. By 2016 when the FDA banned three long-chain perfluorinated compounds  (PFCs), which were used to coat food packaging and microwave popcorn bags to make them grease resistant, barely any food manufacturers still resorted to PFAS at all. This means that many reputable microwave popcorn brands sold today come with non-toxic packaging. 

Unfortunately, studies reveal that even as far on as 2017, many microwave popcorn bags and other food packaging intended to repel water and grease still contained significant levels of FOA and PFOS, otherwise known as “Forever Chemicals,” due to how long they remain in one’s body once consumed. Short-chain chemicals have replaced long-chain fluorochemicals, which means that they get flushed faster, but they’re still there in far too many varieties of microwave popcorn, and faster means they generally still last a long time. 

Safe Microwave Popcorn Brands

This is why it is vital to stick to brands that have declared themselves healthy such as Orville Redenbacher’s Popcorn, Act II Popcorn, Vogel Popcorn, Boomchickapop Popcorn, Crunch ‘n Munch, Quinn Popcorn, Jolly Time Popcorn, Snappy Popcorn Co, Newman’s Own Organics, and Black Jewell which are all free from PFOAs. Always look for indications on the packaging clearing stating ‘PFOA Free’ or similar statements. 

Persistent Microwave Popcorn Dangers

Those who want to be fully aware of all the minor dangers of eating microwave popcorn too frequently should keep these considerations in mind. With this being said, we’d like to stress our prior point – there is very little risk from eating microwave popcorn once or twice a week, regardless of which variety you opt for. It is only excessive, chronic consumption that may lead to complications. 

Diacetyl And Microwave Popcorn

Diacetyl is a flavoring agent that was once widely used to impart buttery flavor to microwave popcorn and otherwise commercially produced snacks. It is also the compound that makes so many flavored e-cigarettes detrimental to respiratory health. 

When diacetyl is inhaled, it causes scarring and inflammation of the tissue within the lung’s smallest air passages, called bronchioles. Direct inhalation, whether through e-cigarettes or the artificial butter-like aroma of hot microwave popcorn, causes bronchiolitis obliterans, which is better known as “popcorn lung.” Now, the only true way to be at high risk of this occurring is to inhale directly from a hot microwave popcorn bag far too often. You’d also have to inhale a copious amount of the chemical, which is really hard to do from a few whiffs. Fortunately, all compounds resulting in harmful emissions, such as diacetyl, have been removed from the prevailing majority of microwave popcorn brands. 

Carbs & Fat In Microwave Popcorn

Microwave Popcorn22.5 g21.6 g256
Stovetop Popcorn20.7 g9.9 g160
Air Popped Popcorn27 g1.8 g124 

The table above details the carbs, fat and total calories for a four-and-a-half cup serving of popped popcorn which is what two heaped tablespoons of kernels or a standard packet of microwave popcorn makes. Microwave popcorn is higher in carbs, calories, and fat than all other types of popcorn. The fat is double that of stovetop popcorn and ten times the concentration of popcorn made in an air popper. Those who snack on popcorn infrequently probably won’t need to worry about the low carb, fat, and caloric intake, but anyone who supplements their diet with popcorn to help their cravings subside should indeed avoid the microwave as far as possible. 

Healthiest Microwave Popcorn

Buying big-name brands such as the safe food manufacturers listed above is the easiest way to ensure that your popcorn comes in a safe bag and is free from diacetyl and any other harmful chemicals. Alternatively, consider a different method of making popcorn or resort to popping your own corn kernels manually in the microwave with the help of a paper bag or an appropriate bowl. We’ve got full instructions for both methods coming up. 

How To Make Microwave Popcorn

Finding the right bowl and a microwave-safe ceramic plate is the hardest part about popping popcorn kernels in a bowl in the microwave. In a similar sense, obtaining a plain brown paper bag is often tricky. Both methods have the potential to make great popcorn. Here are fool-proof instructions to cut away the synthetic seasoning and guarantee healthy homemade popcorn. We’ve also got a tasty method for making vegan popcorn available here

Microwave Popcorn In A Bowl Instructions

Follow the following instructions to make microwave popcorn in a bowl. We recommend making it exactly as advised, without oil, for the best texture, but some people prefer the flavor and consistency with a little oil added. To try it out, simply add two tablespoons of cooking oil like canola or sunflower oil to the kernels before microwaving. 

  • Set out a large tempered glass bowl, such as a Pyrex dish.
  • Fill the bottom of the bowl of popcorn kernels.
  • Cover the bowl with a microwave-safe ceramic plate.
  • Microwave on high for 3 to 6 minutes. Listen to the popping sound and stop when there is a 40 to 60-second delay between pops. 
  • Carefully remove the hot bowl from the oven and dispense the popcorn or allow it to cool before eating. 

Microwave Popcorn In A Bag Instructions

Almost any large brown paper bag can be used to pop popcorn. Just ensure that the bag isn’t coated, or you’re probably going to run the risk of ingesting a minor quantity of PFOAs or similar compounds. Just as is the case with microwave popcorn made in a bowl, oil is unnecessary, but some people do prefer the taste. To pop with the aid of oil using a bag, simply roll the kernels in a little cooking oil before putting them into a brown paper bag. Nothing more than a light coating is needed. After that, simply follow these steps, and you’ll have healthy popcorn in no time. 

Microwave Popcorn Tips

There’s only one key tip that we insist all microwave popcorn fans try, whether popping a store-bought microwave bag of popcorn or corn popped using any other microwave-based method. Microwave the popcorn at half power for 30 to 40 seconds until the first few pops are heard, and then quickly switch to maximum power for the remainder of the duration. You’ll find that the texture is better, and there are far fewer unpopped kernels left over. 

Ensuring that the bag of microwave popcorn is capable of rotating without resistance is vital to proper popping. Another factor to keep in mind is that you don’t need to wait for each and every last kernel to pop. Quite the contrary. Allowing popcorn to microwave for too long will spoil both the flavor and texture, so rather listen carefully and stop your popcorn when there’s a one-second gap in between pops. Some microwaves run so hotly that you’ll need to stop when there’s a three-second interval. Pay attention to your results and adjust accordingly. 

Does Microwave Popcorn Go Bad?

Popcorn needs to hold a certain percentage of water in order to pop properly. At the rate at which popcorn kernels dry out, they have a shelf-life of around six months to a year. Prepackaged microwave popcorn has fats and oils which can go rancid, which shortens this duration to a maximum shelf life of around eight months. Feel free to try popping anything that’s expired within a month or two, but anything longer is going to give you very dry, extremely brittle popcorn. 

What To Do With Unpopped Microwave Popcorn?

Unpopped microwave popcorn doesn’t have enough moisture left to pop and retain a texture that’s fresh and crunchy but chewy at the same time. Instead, any repopped kernels pop into dry popcorn with a slightly burned taste. Those who refuse to allow any wastage can pop their unpopped microwave popcorn kernels in a brown paper bag using the instructions we provided earlier. 

What Is The Healthiest Way To Make Popcorn?

Air-popped popcorn is the lowest in calories, fat, and carbohydrates, but air-popped corn has a distinct taste of its own that you’ll either fall in love with or be slightly averse to. Those who demand the healthiest popcorn possible will have to buy themselves an air popper. Otherwise, good old-fashioned stovetop popcorn is almost as healthy and is packed with flavor. Anyone looking for a clean buttery flavor with the lowest fat and calories should try stovetop popcorn made with clarified butter, otherwise known as ghee. There’s nothing quite like it. 

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