Study Links Artifical Butter Flavoring Ingredient to Alzheimer's Disease Process

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Last weekend, I went to the movies with some friends to see Beasts of the Summer Wild. As part of my pre-movie ritual, I went to the snack bar and bought a medium bag of popcorn and a bottle of water. I never eat all of the popcorn; instead, I bring part of it home so that Dad can enjoy the snack. Most often, I leave the popcorn plain, choosing to avoid the table near the concession stand where the butter flavoring is located.

    Turns out that decision may be a really good thing. A new study out of the University of Minnesota found that diacetyl, which is an artificial butter flavoring ingredient, may actually worsen the harmful effects of beta-amyloid proteins.

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    While diacetyl forms naturally in fermented beverages and some chardonnay wines, researchers worried that this ingredient has a similar make-up to a substance that causes beta-amyloid proteins to clump together in the brain, which is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers then conducted tests on the diacetyl to determine whether this ingredient would cause the proteins to clump together.

    What were their findings? “DA [diacetyl] did increase the level of beta-amyloid clumping,” an American Chemical Society press release states. “At real-world occupational exposure levels, DA also enhanced beta-amyloid’s toxic effects on nerve cells growing in the laboratory. Other lab experiments showed that DA easily penetrated the so-called ‘blood-brain barrier,’ which keeps many harmful substances from entering the brain. DA also stopped a protective protein called glyoxlase I from safeguarding nerve cells.”

    This study increases the concern about industry workers who are involved in creating the flavoring ingredient that is used to provide buttery flavor and aroma with microwave popcorn, margarines, snack foods, candy, baked goods, pet foods and other products.

    This isn’t the first time that health concerns have been linked to diacetyl. Earlier reports indicate that this ingredient has led to a severe lung disease. According to a 2009 story by Andrew Schneider, major producers of popcorn, such as Orville Redenbacher, stopped using diacetyl in their popcorn after it was linked with sickening  hundreds of factory workers, the deaths of some who worked in these factories, as well as ruining the lungs of at least three people who ate a lot of microwave popcorns. However, the substitute used for flavoring is another form of diacetyl.

    Interestingly, the Federal Drug Administration provided a 2011 opinion that stated, “There is no evidence in the available information on diacetyl or starter distillate that demonstrates or suggests reasonable grounds to suspect a hazard to the public when they are used at levels that are now current or that might reasonably be expected in the future.

    Admitted, most of us won’t be exposed the levels of this flavoring that people who work in the industry are. However, I take the FDA recommendation with a grain of salt. I, for one, am going to avoid that butter-flavored ingredient, whether it’s at the theater, in microwave popcorn, or in processed foods.

  • Which brings me to another point – I increasingly agree with Michael Pollan’s take on the world from his book, Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, and believe it can help us avoid some chemically engineered ingredients that might harm our health. Some of his messages include:

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    • Eat real food.  Pollan suggests that most of the foods that you find in a supermarket are actually food-like substances. “They’re highly processed concoctions designed by food scientists, consisting mostly of ingredients derived from corn and soy that no normal person keeps in the pantry, and they contain chemical additives with which the human body has not been long acquainted.”
    • “Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce,” Pollan recommends. In my mind, that includes diacetyl.
    • “Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle,” Pollan states. By doing this, you end up with fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, and airy in your shopping cart since these products line the store’s walls. By shopping this way, you are more likely to avoid the processed food products that can contain ingredients such as diacetyl.

    So next time you’re at the theater – or the grocery store, for that matter – try to avoid products with artificial buttery flavorings. And if you need that hit of butter, just use the real stuff!

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    American Chemical Society. (2012). Artificial butter flavoring ingredient linked to key Alzheimer’s disease process.

    Pollan, M. (2009). Food rules: An eater’s manual. New York: Penguin Books.

    Schneider, A. (2009). Just when you thought it was safe to make popcorn.

    U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2011). Select committee on GRAS substances (SCOGS ) opinion: Diacetyl.

Published On: August 07, 2012