Red and white striped container with yellow buttered popcorn
The Unexpectedly Deadly Chemical Once In Butter Flavoring
By C.A. Pinkham
If you've had movie theater popcorn in the last decade and a half and noticed that it doesn't taste quite as good as it used to, it's not just your imagination.
It is the result of artificial butter flavoring in movie theater popcorn changing radically In the mid-2000s due to the presence of a surprisingly dangerous chemical: diacetyl.
Ingesting the chemical isn't harmful, but inhaling its fumes can be dangerous, and it was the employees of popcorn factories that bore the greatest risk.
Exposure to excess diacetyl fumes causes scar tissue to accrue in the lungs, leading to a blockage of airflow in a condition called bronchiolitis obliterans, or popcorn lung.
After facing several lawsuits as a result of factory workers getting popcorn lung, popcorn companies excised the chemical entirely, and microwave popcorn companies followed suit.
These days, a new chemical called Flavacol is used for popcorn butter. Diacetyl isn't banned though, and its naturally-occurring form is in fact safe — unless its fume is inhaled.
In the mid-2010s, diacetyl showed up as a flavoring agent in e-cigarettes, and kids as young as 17 started to develop popcorn lung. The FDA's vape regulations came none too soon.