Bronchiolitis obliterans, which is commonly known as “popcorn lung,” is caused by inhaling the chemical diacetyl. Diacetyl is a chemical that is used to create the artificial butter flavor in microwave popcorn. It is seen more in microwave popcorn factory workers than it is in popcorn consumers. The disease is irreversible and it can cause the permanent hardening and break down of the bronchioles in the lungs. The only treatment for the disease is to have a lung transplant.
One of the flavoring ingredients in most microwaveable bags of popcorn, the chemical diacetyl has been implicated in causing bronchiolitis obliterans. This naturally-occurring chemical gives butter its unique taste, but too much pure diacetyl ingested through the nose and mouth may interact negatively with lung tissue.
In the following statement released by ConAgra, the company dismissed the recent claims that have been made against the company: “Conagra has a long history of corporate responsibility and we pride ourselves on food safety and quality. We do not believe the lawsuit has merit.”
While diacetyl is naturally occurring in some foods such as cheese, butter, and several types of wine, the chemical has rarely been reported to have caused any illnesses in consumers. So, while the risk for an illness caused by artificial butter is very small, the addition of butter to unflavored popcorn is not harmful at all. It is important to note that unflavored popcorn does not pose any health risks; it is actually regarded as a very healthy snack alternative. Only popcorn that use any amount of artificial butter, small or large, stand a minor risk for “popcorn lung.”
Conagra’s official response has been cautious yet firm, citing “a long history of corporate responsibility,” and stating both that “we pride ourselves on food safety and quality,” and “we do not believe the lawsuit has merit.”
The first case of “popcorn lung” was reported in 2000 when the NIOSH was asked to investigate several cases of health problems impacting workers at a Missouri popcorn manufacturing facility. Since the first case due to the illness was filed, popcorn companies have paid out more than $100 million dollars in settlements.
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