Label Decoder: Diacetyl

Before you pop your next bag of microwave popcorn, find out more about an additive used in some brands.

There's no better snack for movie night at home than a bucket of buttery popcorn. But you may think twice about the microwave stuff after we tell you about and ingredient it contains, diacetyl, and the trouble it has caused.

What is it?

Diacetyl was first synthesized more than 80 years ago and can now be found in about 6,000 food products. It’s used as a preservative in unsalted butter to lengthen shelf life, but higher amounts are added to butter-flavored products like microwave popcorn, cooking oils and sprays and margarine.

Is It Safe?

Low levels of this additive are safe, however diacetyl gained notoriety around 2005 to 2007 when employees working in American factories became very ill after long-term exposure. Studies have also found that professional chefs who stand over hot grills or skillets for hours using large amounts of butter substitutes are also at risk. Reported side effects included persistent dry cough and wheezing, shortness of breath. Several employees of food companies using the ingredient were diagnosed with obstructive lung disease, which is potentially fatal. After this fiasco, most major food companies switched to safer ingredients.

Bottom Line: To play it safe, you're better off making your own popcorn. Leave the microwave stuff for a once-in-a-while snack.

TELL US: What label terms would you like us to decode next?
Keep Reading

Next Up

Label Decoder: Pectin

You’ve seen it on hundreds of labels and may have even used it in your own kitchen—learn all the need-to-know facts about this additive.

Label Decoder: Sulfites

If you’re a wine drinker, you’ve probably seen the word sulfite listed on most wine bottles. Find out why they’re used in most wines and if wine-lovers should find a new drink?

Label Decoder: Olestra

When I was in graduate school, some of my fellow dietetic students tracked down one of the first stores where the nonfat fried chips were being sold. The employee that answered the phone explained how he’d downed an entire package and had a horrible stomach ache (though he was a bit more descriptive of his symptoms). From that day on, I knew chips fried in Olestra weren’t all they were cracked up to be.

Label Decoder: Lecithin

You can find lecithin in food and in supplements, but what is it and is it good for you? Find out more about this added ingredient and how it’s used in the processing plant.

Label Decoder: Carrageenan

This ingredient is found in foods like ice cream, jelly and even infant formula. Find out what it does and if it’s safe to eat.

Label Decoder: Lactic Acid

Lactic acid is in a range of foods, from cheeses to jellies to carbonated beverages, but what does this preservative do and is it safe?

Label Decoder: Xanthan Gum

Xanthan gum's not hard to find when you're checking labels. Candy, puddings, ice cream, even cottage cheese -- it's all over grocery store shelves. Although it’s not the easiest word to pronounce, xanthan gum is one additive that you can chew on without worry.

Label Decoder: Sodium Benzoate

Many ingredients listed on food labels might as well be in a foreign language. You see the same ones pop up all the time, but do you know what they really mean? In this new series, we're tackling some common label names -- some are perfectly fine for you, others not so much. First up: sodium benzoate.

Label Decoder: Sodium Nitrite

If you think hot dogs, bacon and luncheon meats keep that pink and red hue naturally, think again! These are just a few of the foods that contain a preservative -- sodium nitrate -- that may be harmful to your health.

Label Decoder: Cane Juice

Have you been reading your food labels lately? You may have seen the sweetener “cane juice” under the list of ingredients. But is it really better than sugar?