A new study published in Chemical Research in Toxicology showed that the butter flavoring diacetyl (DA) increases the type of protein clumping linked to Alzheimer’s disease. The chemical is found in many processed foods, including microwave popcorn, snack foods, baked goods, and margarine. In fact, the researchers say that diacetyl is “ubiquitous” in the modern diet.
The study’s authors are troubled about chronic exposure that industry workers have to DA. That exposure may lead to long-term neurological damage. DA easily traversed the blood-brain barrier, which usually keeps substances from entering the brain itself. Scientists do not know if consuming DA in products like microwave popcorn can cause problematic levels of the chemical in the body.
Diacetyl’s structure is similar to other substances that makes beta-amyloid proteins clump in the brain. That clumping is indicative of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, DA prevented a protective protein that helps keep nerve cells healthy from reaching the brain.
Diacetyl is a natural byproduct of fermentation and is also synthesized for use in the food industry. The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has written hazard communication guidance for the chemical. That guidance says that “a number of employees exposed to food flavorings containing diacetyl (FFCD) have developed serious respiratory illness presenting with persistent dry cough, wheezing, shortness of breath upon exertion, and fixed airways obstruction on spirometry. Several employees have been diagnosed with asthma or bronchiolitis obliterans.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has investigated the occurrence of severe lung disease in employees at microwave popcorn packaging plants and flavorings manufacturing facilities in 2003 and 2007. This latest research on the link between DA and Alzheimer’s Disease strengthens the concern about this chemical and the health of industry workers.