smells butter than it is

My latest Victual Reality column looks at how perfectly wonderful foods like corn and butter get twisted up by food-industry marketers and flavor engineers, confusing people and often sending them scurrying in search of dubious, unhealthy, artificial substitutes — which the food industry is only too willing to provide.

As if on cue, out comes a New York Times piece on the horrors of microwave popcorn. Those unpleasant fumes that cloud the office when one of your co-workers pops a bag of Orville Redenbacher into the microwave? They really are noxious.

(Thanks to reader Erica Stephan for alerting us to this.)

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The Times reports that in California food-flavoring factories (dear God, remember when food’s flavor came from farms?), workers have been turning up with a lung condition called bronchiolitis obliterans, “for which there is no cure or treatment.” The article adds:

Usually found only in people who are poisoned by chemical fires or chemical warfare or in lung transplant patients, bronchiolitis obliterans renders its victims unable to exert even a little energy without becoming winded or faint.

The common denominator in such cases is exposure to fumes from a substance called diacetyl, which turns out to be a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. Evidently, guys in lab coats have discovered that diacetyl, when isolated by who knows what industrial process, gives food a “buttery” flavor.

(Funny, I’ve discovered that butter does the same thing, with no need for industrial isolation. Maybe I should set up shop as a flavor scientist?)

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It also turns out that in vapor form, diacetyl can obliterate one’s lungs. The Times article cites all manner of foot-dragging by the flavor industry and the government agencies that monitor it to actually do anything about the menace — concerns about which date back to the 1970s.

Meanwhile, the food industry has been blithely dumping diacetyl into microwave popcorn and margarine. Might the fumes created by nuked popcorn, or from margarine used as a sauteing medium, be harming consumers?

The Times piece doesn’t address that factor. The Baltimore Sun did last year, though, reporting that all relevant federal agencies had declined to study the issue.

“The problem with a chemical like diacetyl is that the route of exposure — inhalation — does not fit easily the jurisdiction of any of these agencies [FDA, etc.],” a law professor told the Sun. Oh — so it must not be dangerous?

Even if the Times neglected this angle, I do love the way the paper ended its piece. An industry shill makes the following jaw-dropping statement on why diacetyl must remain in popcorn and margarine: “There is no single substance that can replace diacetyl, because it is the single substance most responsible for the ‘buttery note.'”

No substitute for the butter substitute, eh? What’s a few workers’ lungs, anyway?

Comes the stinging retort from California assemblywoman Sally Lieber, who’s sponsoring a bill to protect the workers:

We are talking about a potentially devastating disease caused by buttering flavor. And there are alternatives out there. Including butter.