Popcorn -- made from corn kernels that are heated until they explode -- was first eaten by the Native Americans and remains a popular grain in the U.S. today. It's is generally regarded as a snack food. While there are some health risks associated with eating popcorn, taking appropriate precautions means you can likely enjoy a bowl of popcorn safely.
Toddlers can choke to death on popcorn, prompting the American Academy of Pediatrics to ask that warning labels be placed on it, reports "The New York Times." Children 3 and younger are at elevated risk because their throats are small in diameter and their back teeth are not yet in place, making them likely to be unable to chew their food into small pieces. Popcorn can also pose a danger for adults who have swallowing difficulties due to oral problems, history of stroke or advanced age. Anyone can occasionally choke on popcorn, particularly while distracted, talking, coughing or eating too quickly. For safety, eat popcorn with a drink nearby and chew it carefully before swallowing. Never give popcorn to a child younger than 5.
Many bags of buttered microwave popcorn contain the chemical diacetyl, which has been causing lung problems for factory workers in popcorn plants for years. Dubbed popcorn lung, this condition develops after repeated exposure to the aromatic additive, causing serious lung damage. A case of consumer exposure was also observed in a man who prepared and ate several bags of buttered microwave popcorn each day for a number of years, notes the University of Illinois. While this particular case hasn't been proven, it is prudent to open buttered microwave bags near an exhaust fan and to avoid breathing the fumes.
Popcorn is frequently topped with or cooked in unhealthy ingredients, such as saturated fat and salt. Movie theaters often add coconut oil, which is high in saturated fat. Typical microwave popcorn also contains high levels of fat and the vast majority of popcorn is highly salted before consumption. Air-popping popcorn is best, as it can be made with no additional ingredients.
Those who have a corn allergy or intolerance can become quite ill from ingesting popcorn. Even smelling the popcorn popping can precipitate a reaction in susceptible individuals. Those allergic or intolerant to corn should avoid popcorn altogether and leave the area when it is being prepared.
If you have a gastrointestinal condition that requires you to follow a low-fiber or low-residue diet, consult with your physician before eating popcorn, as the grain may irritate your gastrointestinal tract. Some experts advise those with diverticulitis or diverticulosis to abstain from popcorn, although there is no scientific basis for this, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.
- ABC Good Morning America: Could Microwave Popcorn Be Toxic?
- University of Illinois: Doctor Warns Consumers of Popcorn Fumes
- National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: Diverticulosis and Diverticulitis
- University of Maryland: Allergies, Intolerance, and Sensitivity
- "The New York Times": Labels Urged for Food That Can Choke; Laurie Tarkan; 2010