Today’s blog is a look at the history behind a recent news story, about the guy that sued for having contracted “popcorn lung.” He won a seven million dollar lawsuit against a popcorn maker and the supermarket chain that carried it.
The chemical that allegedly caused the man’s lung illness is called diacetyl. It’s an ingredient in many brands of microwave popcorn, and is used to create the “butter” flavor in those and other products. That seven million dollar ruling has probably caused more than a few ConAgra, Unilever, and other big-agrifood company executives to quake in their custom-made boots.
Studies have shown that when certain fake-butter-flavored products are heated, they release the diacetyl vapor which, when inhaled, can lead to a rare and irreversible respiratory disease called bronchiolitis obliterans.
The guy who won the ruling claimed to have consumed two bags of microwave popcorn every day for ten years. Skimming over this unsettling glimpse into that person’s life, let’s look into a bit of the history behind those fake butter products the food industry euphemistically calls “table spreads,” beginning with margarine.
Margarine has an interesting history. Emperor Louis Napoleon III offered a prize to anyone who could make a cheaper alternative to butter that could be used by the military and the poorer classes. In 1869, the French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès invented oleomargarine, which was derived mostly from animal fat.
With the Great Depression and the subsequent rationing in World War II, animal and dairy fats became more and more scarce in the U.S. and Europe. So the manufacturers of margarine changed it to a more vegetable-oil-based product.
There were (and still are) some upsides to margarine. It’s cheaper than butter, and, for the brands that contain no animal products, a good alternative for people who keep a strict kosher diet, and for vegans.
But dairy farmers objected to the existence of margarine from the get-go. In 1895, many states passed laws limiting or banning the sale of margarine to protect the dairy industries. It was illegal to sell margarine in the state of Wisconsin–and restaurants there still can’t offer only margarine and not butter to their patrons.
Many margarine and fake-butter manufacturers have responded to the recent diacetyl scare by substituting a different chemical, known as 2,3-pentanedione. But new studies have shown that to be just as bad for cooks’ health.
The people most at risk are food service workers, like those fry cooks you see in diners who ladle out the butter-type product on their grills, or people who work in popcorn factories.
It’s almost impossible for us consumers to tell if a product contains diacetyl, because manufacturers are not required to list it on the label. Pretty much all margarines and vegetable shortenings contain diacetyl. But so does some real butter! (The manufacturers add diacetyl to unsalted butter to stabilize and preserve it.) Your best bet is to stay away from anything labeled “butter flavored” or “tastes like butter” or “can’t believe it’s not butter,” and to avoid the label that lists “natural and artificial flavoring.” The artificial flavoring could be diacetyl, or some other scary chemical about which I’ve blogged before.
I checked the label on the Land O Lakes and the Trader Joe butters I happen to have in my fridge. The Trader Joe ingredient list is limited to “sweet cream.” The Land o Lakes lists “sweet cream and natural flavorings.” I hope that means they’re diacetyl-free.
I know butter is expensive. And it’s bad for people with high cholesterol. And it burns at a lower temp, so it’s not always the best thing for cooking. But the solution isn’t to eat margarine. Use vegetable or olive oil in your pan instead. Spread an avocado on your toast rather than margarine. And try making popcorn the old-fashioned way.
Julia Child was right. Butter is better.