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Warning on Microwave Buttered Popcorn, and How to Make Healthy Popcorn

Originally published on September 10, 2007

A few years ago, the New York Times ran a story about a 53-year old Colorado man whose penchant for microwave buttered popcorn may have caused him to develop a serious lung condition called bronchiolitis obliterans, or "popcorn workers' lung."

Initially diagnosed with generalized lung inflammation, the Colorado man's doctor eventually discovered that he ate at least two bags of microwave buttered popcorn per day for more than a decade. He often made it a point to inhale the butter-flavored steam that came out of the bags when he first opened them.

He was repeatedly inhaling significant doses of heated diacetyl, a vapor that, if inhaled over a long period of time, can cause the small airways in the lungs to become swollen and scarred. Eventually, the scarring of airways can create a situation where it is possible to inhale deeply, but very difficult to exhale without discomfort.

Diacetyl is used to add a buttery flavor to many brands of microwave popcorn, including Orville Redenbacher and Act II. Chronic exposure to heated diacetyl in food production and flavoring plants that utilize synthetic butter has been linked with hundreds of cases of lung damage.

A representative of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has stated that the agency is considering the Colorado man's case in its review of the safety of diacetyl.

A spokesperson for ConAgra Foods, the United States' largest producer of microwave popcorn, has said that ConAgra plans to remove diacetyl from its microwave popcorn products "in the near future."

A spokesperson for Pop Weaver, another large maker of microwave popcorn, has publicly stated that Pop Weaver has already stopped using diacetyl in its bags of popcorn "because of consumer concerns."

Clearly, it makes sense to avoid eating microwave buttered popcorn and spending time in areas that produce it.

If you are a fan of popcorn, you can always make healthy popcorn in just a few minutes with the following recipe:

Healthy Popcorn Recipe


1/2 cup dried corn kernels, like the kind found in the picture above
Extra-virgin olive oil or virgin coconut oil
Sea salt


Cover the bottom of a medium to large-sized pot with a thin coat of extra-virgin olive oil.

Add corn kernels, and give the pot a good shake to coat the kernels with olive oil.

Place lid on pot and turn the heat on to a medium level.

Within a minute or two, the corn will begin popping into popcorn. As the frequency of popping starts to diminish, turn the stove off and take the pot off the heat, but keep the lid on to allow the last remaining kernels to pop.

Transfer popcorn to a large bowl, add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, season with sea salt, give it a good toss, and enjoy all-natural popcorn that is free of harmful synthetic flavorings.

Addendum: In a press release dated December 17, 2007, ConAgra Foods, maker of Orville Redenbacher's and Act II microwave popcorn brands, announced it had removed diacetyl from all of its butter-flavored microwave popcorn varieties. New products began hitting store shelves in October 2007.


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Our family of seven enjoys eating a lot of popcorn for the health and economy of it. Never using microwave varieties, we use the method Dr. Kim describes. We add real butter and, this is our favourite way to eat it, nutritional yeast. Try it, with or without the butter.
Thank you for your newsletter, Dr. Kim.

The naturalness of popcorn has always been my favorite, me being native american from the southwestern usa, it is a tribal delicacy prepared in many ways. Popcorn is as ancient as the first cultures on this continent. We called it "Lemok-tuhki," meaning: Hail-corn ( like in snow-hail ). Partched corn is another favorite prepared over and open fire, in a kettle filled with sand. If the corn pops into "popcorn," it is saparated from the partched kernels to be eaten saparately. The hot kernels are put on a basket, then lightly salted with a water-salt solution- natural salt from natural salt mines far away, then cooled. It can keep for even months.

We use the all natural microwave popcorn, no artificial anything. Whenever we've tried making popcorn the way Dr. Kim describes it, it always turns out soggy. Too much steam I suppose. That's why we've chosen the all natural type of microwave popcorn. Then, typically we add powdered garlic - yum! We also don't eat it very often, 1 or two times per month perhaps.

Thanks Dr. Kim for all your excellent advice.

I am a natural popcorn addict and I try all kinds of mixtures. I want to recommend my fool-proof method for making crisp, delicious popcorn everytime.
To get the best results I use Virgin Coconut Oil which I add to an already HOT pot. A heavy stainless steel one works best.
I use just enough oil to lightly grease the bottom of the pot and when I add the corn it begins sizzling in the oil immediately. I swirl the corn around in the oil to coat the kernels, jiggle the pan a bit to spread them out in a single layer and then cover with a tight lid. If the bottom of the pan is completely covered in kernels one layer deep you should get a full pot of popped corn.
I use a glass cover so that I can watch the facinating process of the corn popping. I love having fun when I am cooking anything...I believe it adds something important to the health benefits.
Within a minute the corn starts to pop and after the majority have done their exploding thing, I shake the whole pan (using a towel or gloves) to make sure all the unpopped kernels go back to the botttom. When the popping slows down, if I can count to ten between pops I turn off the fire and let it sit for another minute as Dr. Kim suggests and then I pour the fresh steaming popcorn into a bowl and sprinkle with sea salt and a spice...usually garlic, cumin, tumeric or cayenne for a Tropical taste treat with great health benefits.

Happy snacking.

My husband and I have been making our own popcorn this way for years. The only difference is that I will squeeze a clove or two of raw garlic, add the juice to the olive oil and then drizzle it on the popcorn. It is far superior to any prepared popcorn on the market!

Dr. Kim,

I saw the article in the NYT as well and had a good chuckle although his situation is a serious one. Just another instance of a company not telling people what is actually hurting them.

On another note, I was curious about how you feel about the saturated fat debate today? That is, how vegetable-based saturated fats are much better at withstanding heat and cooking with (like extra-virgin coconut oil and palm oil) rather than an polyunsaturated oil (like extra-virgin olive oil) that has its EFAs mutate into transfats when even a low heat is applied to them giving the liver an unnecessary work out to break down the mutant transfats.

That said, I completely agree that extra-virgin olive oil is fantastic when sprinkled on top of fresh popcorn with some gray sea-salt and should put melted butter to rest.

Thanks for the great newsletter too, Dr. Kim! It's always welcome in my inbox. :)

I've heard from a few good sources that heating olive oil is not good. An even better recipe is to use coconut oil in place of the olive can also crank the heat up a little higher in this case without the oil smoking. This makes for delicious popcorn.

We use a hot-air popcorn maker we've had for 24 years - works great and you can use actual melted butter or coconut oil (or no fat!)on your popcorn, then add sea salt.

I like to make a sweet popcorn adding stevia and lots of cinnamon to the melted butter before I pour it over the popcorn - it satisfies my sweet tooth!

At our house, we've been making popcorn with organic coconut oil the past several years. The popcorn is so good this way I rarely even want to add butter. And, yes, coconut oil hangs tough in high temperatures. That's another reason I like to use it.

You remember how movie popcorn used to taste in the good old days? When you could eat a huge bag of it and enjoy every kernel? Well, that's because most theaters used to pop with coconut oil or palm oil. Then in the early 90's (I think it was) the so-called Center for Science in the Public Interest made a huge stink about using coconut and palm oils and most theaters switched over to popping with partially hydrogenated soybean oil or canola oil. Ugh, gag me with a spoon!

Apparently some theaters have quietly flown under the politically correct food police radar and gone back to popping with coconut oil, but that's not the case in the town where I live, where the popcorn tastes so bad there are days I don't even buy a bag.

Indeed, the popcorn problems at our local multiplex are so maddening I'm tempted to smuggle my own corn into the theater. In fact, I may try it one of these days. I'll brazenly walk in with a big open container of popcorn. Most likely they'll start acting like Nazis, telling me in a firm voice, "You can't bring that in here!" My response will be: "Because of my heart, my doctor said I had to eat popcorn popped with the oil he prescribed." If that doesn't get me into the theater with my own popcorn, nothing will.

Finally, Dr. Kim has excellent articles about healthy oils here on his site, and you'll also find plenty of good reading on the topic at

Chet "Pop Me Up a Big Sack of Corn with Coconut Oil" Day

In our house we use extra virgin organic coconut butter to pop our porcorn and lots of it. The way that it works with your metabolism and thyroid in my opinion makes a ususally fattening snack almost a calorie-burner. After doing some research in the past, the debate is still there but the saturated fats in tropical oils that are processed correctly are not as hard on the body as other saturated fats.

The smell in the house after we pop it is reminisent of the old days when they popped popcorn in the theaters in coconut butter (unfortunately hydrogenated at the time.) But the smell and the taste is out of this world!


We have used the brown paper bag method in the microwave. Then sprinkle on some parmesan cheese or a little chili powder with a little melted butter and it tastes great. We will try the olive oil dripped on top. Otherwise we will just use the airpopper. Never did like the high fat content in the bought popcorn packets.

I use a hot air popper, put about 1 tablespoon of olive oil in the bowl where the popcorn will go into. I add some sea salt to the oil. The heat from the hot air popper heats the oil and disolves the salt. I stir it around a bit. I don't know if the next step is healthy or not. I add some parmesean cheese to the popcorn.

We enjoy using Ghee when making our popcorn. It's wonderful. I read your article on the chemical used in popcorn to give it the buttery flavor. We really enjoy popcorn at the movies but I will no longer be purchasing that. Unfortunately, they don't allow you to bring your own popcorn to movies which is our favorite past time. But now that I've read your article that's easy to give up as we were finding that we were having disburned sleep after eating theater

I'm not a huge fan of microwave ovens, but in a pinch, here is how we make our own microwave popcorn. Get a lunch size brown paper bag, pour in about 1/4 cup of popcorn (we buy the store brand), fold the top over 2 times then staple with 1 staple. (If you have ever microwaved a tea bag, you know the staple is not a concern.) Microwave for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes on high. Remove, open carefully and add salt and organic melted butter to taste. Super easy, much healthier than store bought with all of the same conveniences. Much cheaper too!