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Butter Flavoring Can Cause Lung Disease: Diacetyl, a Chemical Additive to Watch Out For

Between 1992 and 2000, eight former workers of a popcorn plant in Jasper, Missouri developed a rare lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans. Known commonly as the "popcorn packer's lung," this disease has been linked to workers inhaling butter flavoring vapors used at the food plants where they work. The disease is so severe that some of the workers are now on lung transplant waiting lists.

Butter Popcorn

The flavoring that gives microwave popcorn its buttery taste may be causing a rare lung disease.

Back in November 2000, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a study involving 117 workers at the Jasper popcorn plant and found:

  • Plant workers had 3.3 times the rate of airway obstruction than a national sample.

  • Young employees who had never smoked were five times more likely to suffer from chronic cough and shortness of breath than a national sample.

  • 72 percent of workers reported work-related eye, nose or throat irritation.

  • The popcorn-production workers reported chronic coughs, attacks of wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath more frequently than other workers.

In January 2005, NIOSH recommended that employers take measures to limit their "occupational respiratory exposures to food flavorings and flavoring ingredients in workplaces where flavorings are made or used."

They also reported in the journal Chest that workers exposed to flavoring agents were almost four times as likely to develop inflammation in their airways, which indicates that harmful agents have been inhaled. And, links between butter flavoring exposure and lung disease in workers in Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio have been reported.

In a lawsuit against the world's second largest flavor manufacturer, International Flavoring & Fragrances (IFF), 19 popcorn factory workers claimed the company knew about the risks of the butter flavoring. IFF was ordered to pay almost $53 million in settlements to four workers, which it appealed, and in early 2004 paid $20 million in damages to another worker.

The Culprit: Diacetyl

Although it has not been determined exactly what in the flavoring is causing harm, one chemical commonly used and thought to play a part in the lung disease cases is diacetyl.

The disease, bronchiolitis obliterans, is an obliteration of the lung's airways, which does not respond to normal asthma medications. It is thought that, once the flavoring chemicals are breathed in, they damage the airway lining and tissue, leading to scarring that hardens and crimps airflow.


Diacetyl imparts a yellow color to dairy products.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), "A cause-effect relationship between diacetyl and bronchiolitis obliterans has not been established, as food-processing workers with this lung disease were also exposed to other volatile food-flavoring agents."

However, they have listed the following potential symptoms of exposure to the chemical as:

  • Eye, mucous membrane, respiratory system, skin irritation Persistent cough
  • Phlegm production
  • Wheezing
  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath)
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Episodes of mild fever or generalized aches
  • Severe skin rashes

Potential health effects include irritation to the eyes, nose, throat and skin, and, as noted by OSHA, "Suspected cumulative lung damage-- bronchiolitis obliterans."

Diacetyl is naturally occurring in butter, beer, coffee, vinegar, and other food products, produced by yeast during fermentation. It is used as an artificial flavoring to add to the flavor of:

  • Butter
  • Cream or creaminess
  • Butterscotch

If you'd like to watch out for diacetyl in your own shopping, it's used in (aside from butter, cream and butterscotch):

  • Microwave popcorn and other snack foods
  • Some fast foods
  • Baked goods
  • Syrups
  • Processed cheese
  • Icings
  • Confections
  • Salad dressings
  • Marinades
  • Non- and low-fat dairy products
  • Sour cream
  • Cottage cheese

Recommended Reading

Warning: Phthalates in Cosmetics, Toys & More Can Pose Health Dangers

The World's 7 Most Potent Disease-Fighting Spices


Food Navigator October 7, 2005

USA Today: Is Butter Flavoring Ruining Popcorn Workers' Lungs?

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Butter Flavored Popcorn: Lung Disease Risk for Workers

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