That buttery rich flavor that so many people love on their popcorn may harm more than just your waistline. The chemical that provides that butter taste has now been associated with a buildup of the brain proteins involved in Alzheimer's disease.
The research, conducted at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, analyzed the ingredient diacetyl (DA) and its effects in a laboratory study.1 First, when its internal structure was explored, the team discovered that DA bears a close resemblance to the matter within the brain that creates beta-amyloid proteins. These abnormal proteins bunch up into masses of plaque, which are a known hallmark of Alzheimer's disease in the brain.
The scientists then set up conditions in test tubes placing DA on nerve cells that were grown for the experiment. The DA behaved just as beta-amyloid proteins do, by massing together and causing a misfolding of amyloid, thereby creating lumps of plaque. They also damaged the nerve cells that were hosting them.
Now, you might wonder just how they could surface in the brain when they should just make their way through the gastrointestinal tract. The problem lies in the fact that DA enters the bloodstream as the food is digested and can travel up to the brain. And in even low concentrations, the chemical has the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier that is meant to protect the brain from many potentially harmful elements.2 Once there, DA hinders our ability to clear beta amyloid out of the brain, which is how deposits end up remaining.
Natural DA is found in dairy products, including butter, fruit, and fermented products such as wine and beer. Concentrated synthetic DA, however, is what is used as flavoring in processed foods. Since it is considered "safe" by the FDA, it does not have to be listed by name on the label. Instead, you will usually find it listed as "butter flavor" or some similar wording.
This is not the first time DA has been found to be an unhealthy product. Several studies over the past few years have found that this substance may be responsible for respiratory conditions in those who inhale it.3 While this wouldn't affect the average consumer of products containing DA, it is quite problematic for those who work in the factories in which microwave popcorn and other artificially-flavored food items are produced.
And you may not be safe from the stuff even if you are not a big fan of butter-flavored microwave popcorn because that's far from the only edible product in which DA can be found. The whole range of butter substitute products, some types of candy, and lots of packaged baked goods obtain their buttery smell and flavor through the use of DA. Even Fluffy is at risk since some pet food manufacturers include DA as an ingredient, presumably to make the food a little more palatable for finicky animals. But back to humans! Other studies have discovered an association between diet and the development of dementia or Alzheimer's disease. Not to say that it is the sole cause, but it definitely appears to have a negative effect. That said, it is important to consider not only what not to eat, such as additives and chemicals including DA, but also what may provide us with a little protection. A 2010 study that took place at Columbia University in New York linked a Mediterranean-style diet with lower rates of Alzheimer's disease.4 Those whose food consumption focuses heavily on olive oil-based salad dressing, nuts, fish, tomatoes, poultry, broccoli, fruits, and dark and green leafy vegetables and less on red meat, organ meat, and high-fat dairy products were 40 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's than those following a more typical American diet.
Exercise too is key in helping to prevent Alzheimer's disease. Research has shown that giving the body regular workouts can aid in staving off forms of dementia as well as many other conditions. So although nothing in life comes with a guarantee, it would seem to be in the best interest of our brains and our health in general if we skipped over the fake-buttered popcorn, not to mention those "heart healthy" fake margarines, and chose a more natural, nutritious snack during television time. Or, better yet, shelve the viewing for later and use the time to take a brisk walk or do a little stretching and toning.
And be sure and check out Jon Barron's recent newsletter in which he details how new studies have confirmed that supplemental L-carnosine may be your single best defense against the build-up of beta amyloid plaque in your brain.
1 "Butter Popcorn Chemical Linked To Alzheimer's." CBS DFW. 10 August 2012. Accessed 13 August 2012. <http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2012/08/10/butter-popcorn-chemical-linked-to-alzheimers/>.
2 Pols, Inger. "Popcorn and Alzheimer's: Is There a Connection?" New England Health Advisory. 7 August 2012. Accessed 14 August 2012. <http://nehealthadvisory.com/?p=237>.
3 "Diacetyl." Toxnet. 13 December 2007. Accessed 14 August 2012. <http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/search/a?dbs+hsdb:@term+@DOCNO+297>.
4 Gu, Yian, et al. "Food Combination and Alzheimer Disease Risk." Archives of Neurology. June 2010. Accessed 14 August 2012. <http://archneur.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=800390>.