It happens to the best of us! You’re standing in front of the microwave, looking forward to tucking into a big bag of popcorn, only to realize you’ve accidentally burnt it.
There’s no ignoring that smell, and the popcorn itself is looking charred, blackened and thoroughly unappealing. Uh-oh.
Can you eat burnt microwave popcorn though, even if it’s far from its best?
The answer here is very much a no, I’m afraid. Not only will it be unpleasant to eat, it’s also not recommended due to the potential health risks.
In this article I’m going to explain exactly why this is a bad idea, but first of all I need to add one important disclaimer:
I’m fanatical about all things food but I am not a doctor! In researching this article, I referenced the real experts in this field. I’ve included those important links throughout this guide, so do check in on those if you’d like to dig deeper and check my homework!
The problem with acrylamide
So, what’s the risk exactly when it comes to eating burnt popcorn?
It all comes down to the very starchy nature of popcorn. When this – and similar food – is heated at temperatures over 248°F / 120°C, a chemical reaction occurs.
This chemical reaction produces a substance called acrylamide, which is potentially harmful.
Popcorn that’s been cooked properly still contains a little of this substance, but burnt microwave popcorn contains considerably more of it.
Although the risk is considered moderate overall, it’s still wise to avoid consuming foods with high levels of acrylamide.
Other potential carcinogens
Burning popcorn produces more potential harmful substances, other than acrylamide.
As the NCBI notes, the following substances can form when things like popcorn are exposed to very high temperatures:
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
- Heterocyclic amines (HCAs)
The IARC classifies both of these substances as Group 2A carcinogens, and they’re linked to an increased risk of cancer.
Don’t panic if you’ve accidentally eaten some burnt popcorn in the past!
Occasional consumption of these substances is unlikely to cause you particular harm. It’s just important not to make a habit out of it.
Taste & Nutrition
The health concerns are reason enough for most to avoid eating burnt popcorn.
Beyond that though, there’s no getting around the fact that burnt microwave popcorn has a particularly unpleasant taste and aroma. Those off-flavors make it a tough snack to munch through.
You’re not even getting much out of it nutritionally either. Once burnt, there’s a noticeable loss of heat-sensitive vitamins like B and C.
(Not that many of us shovel popcorn down us for its nutritional properties anyway, but it’s always good to know…)
Frequently Asked Questions
Before I wrap everything up, here are some answers to common questions on this topic.
Why does burnt microwave popcorn smell so bad?
Burnt popcorn smells so bad because of those chemical reactions that are happening at high temperatures.
To be precise, burning popcorn causes the formation of volatile compounds such as pyrazines and aldehydes.
These both produce very strong odors, although pyrazines in particular create that uniquely bitter smell.
Why can’t you microwave popcorn twice?
You can’t microwave popcorn twice because most of the popcorn kernels that are capable of popping, do so after the first round of microwaving.
If you try to microwave the bag again, you’ll just risk burning the popcorn that’s already popped! This in turn will lead to the problems we’ve covered off in this article already – namely, unpleasant odors and potentially harmful substances.
Any kernels that didn’t pop the first time around are highly unlikely to do so at a second attempt. They simply lack the moisture and other conditions needed to pop!
I’ll finish up by stressing something I said earlier on in this article:
If you’ve eaten a bit of burnt popcorn in the past, you really shouldn’t worry!
We’re exposed to all kinds of substances in our daily lives. It’s regular consumption of burnt microwave popcorn that’s best avoided.
Next time you’re firing up a bag of microwave popcorn, just follow the package instructions and keep an eye on the cooking process to avoid a disappointing movie-night snack.
Mark’s a lifelong food fanatic and spent ten years working as an entertainment journalist. He now combines his love of food, drink and writing as the founder and editor of Viva Flavor. Read more