Diacetyl is the chemical that gives microwave popcorn that delicious buttery flavor without the use of any butter. Unfortunately, extensive exposure to diacetyl can lead to a serious, irreversible, and rare condition known as bronchiolitis obliterans. First seen in workers at a microwave popcorn packaging plant, the condition is commonly known as “popcorn lung.” One consumer (who, somewhat freakishly, ate around four bags of microwaved popcorn a day) has developed the disease, and researchers recently discovered that small amounts of diacetyl can cause lung and airway damage in mice.
- The Alternative? OSHA didn’t do crap to protect workers, but lawsuits and negative publicity scared some manufacturers into removing the compound from their packaged kernels. However, diacetyl abounds in packaged foods with fake butter flavor, often under the guise of “natural and artificial flavoring.” As for popcorn, pop your own and use the real golden stuff. Butter=good; popcorn lung=bad.
Benzene is an industrial solvent and a known carcinogen, so food companies generally try to keep it out of their products. However, two chemicals found in soda, sodium benzoate (a preservative) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C), can react to form benzene, especially in the presence of heat or light. In 2007, Coca-Cola and Pepsi agreed to settle lawsuits brought against them after benzene was detected in their products. The suit alleged that Pepsi’s Diet Wild Cherry drink had benzene levels nearly four times the maximum level set by the Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water. Oopsy. Both companies agreed to reformulate; however, thousands of soft drinks containing benzoate and citric acids are still on the market.
- The Alternative? Probably most Coke and Pepsi products are “safe” (who knows what’ll turn up next!), but it’s a good idea to check the label.
The sticky texture of Silly Puddy is due, in part, to a widely used silicone-based polymer called polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS). In addition to Silly Puddy, it is also found in caulks, adhesives, cosmetics, silicone grease, knuckle replacements, silicone breast implants, and … in McDonald’s Fish Filet Patties. They add it as an “antifoaming agent.” I had to look this one up (why is the fish foaming?) and as it turns out, foam, produced when vats of liquids are mixed or agitated, is a big problem for large scale food manufacturers. Lots of foam means frying vats can’t be filled to capacity, meaning fast food restaurants can’t fry as many fish (potatoes, apple crisps, whatever) as mechanically possible. Hence the need for silicone oils like PDMS.
- The Alternative? The FDA allows up to ten parts per million of anti-foaming agents to be used in food products; they’re found in many processed foods. Though not harmful at these levels, their use does increase the amount of acrylamide (a naturally occurring but nasty chemical) that is formed during frying.
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