Content starts here

Hold the Butter: Artificial Flavoring on Popcorn Linked to Alzheimer's Disease


Though I'm a pretty healthy eater most of the time, one of my few junk food weaknesses is movie theater popcorn -- and the more butter, the better. That oily, artificially flavored buttery topping is what makes the snack worthwhile! It's also what makes it terrible, apparently. Long suspected as a cause of lung damage, researchers are now linking butter flavoring to Alzheimer's disease.

The key culprit is a substance called diacetyl, which adds a buttery taste to foods without using any actual butter. It's found in everything from microwave popcorn and the buttery topping used at movie theaters to snack foods, pet foods, margarines and baked goods. You would probably never know it from looking at ingredient lists, however: Most manufacturers will only list "artificial butter flavoring" without noting the specific compounds that make up that flavoring.

See Also: Microwave Popcorn Bags Lined With Toxic Chemicals >>

In a new study, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that diacetyl can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause a brain protein called beta-amyloid to clump. This clumping of beta-amyloid is one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease. Diacetyl can also inhibit the brain's ability to clear beta amyloid as well as stop a protective protein called glyoxalase I from working.

Whether toxic levels of diacetyl are achieved in various body compartments upon mere (over) consumption of diacetyl-containing food substances is an unanswered but an important question," said lead researcher Robert Vince.

While it's unlikely that the occasional consumption of movie theater popcorn alone is enough to trigger ill effects, the ubiquity of artificial butter flavoring in processed foods means we could all be consuming a lot more diacetyl than we realize. The compound is also found naturally in beer and chardonnay wine.

Thursday Quick Hits:

  • Expanding coverage for nursing home care. A new bill proposed by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn) would change Medicare rules to allow patients who enter the hospital for "observation" (as opposed to "in-patient" care) to qualify for post-hospital nursing home coverage. "The trend of hospitals coding patients as observation is accelerating with every passing year, and the impact on families is financially catastrophic," said Courtney.

  • Your brain on marijuana. Australian scientists say persistent, heavy marijuana use damages the brain's memory and learning abilities. MRI scans of the brains of longtime pot smokers showed significant differences in the volume and integrity of the brain's wiring system when compared to people who'd never used the drug.

  • When high blood pressure is good news. In people over 85, high blood pressure could actually indicate better health, according to a new study published in Archives of Internal Medicine.

Photo: Jeanene Scott/Getty Images

Search AARP Blogs