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Microwave Popcorn and ED: PFAS and Male Sexual Health

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There are a few scattered “foods to avoid for a healthy sex life” articles around that pinpoint microwave popcorn lumped in with the other not-so-healthy usual suspects (fried, greasy foods etc.). And, this addition of microwave popcorn to the “avoid” list will likely catch some people off guard.

Popped popcorn is high in fiber, relatively low in calories per volume, and has a decent nutrient profile including L-arginine, zinc, and magnesium -- so what’s the problem here?

As it turns out, the popcorn itself isn’t the issue here, it is some of the chemicals that are used to line the paper bag that popcorn is so often popped in. Hence the reason why these call-outs specify “microwave popcorn” and not popcorn as a whole.

So, popcorn lovers can still enjoy their favorite snack without worrying about potentially harmful chemical additives. But, you may just need to switch to popping it on your stovetop (it is easier than you think!), or grabbing a freshly popped bag from your local theater.

Below, we will give you a little more information on the chemicals of concern, explain where they are found in food packaging, detail some of the potential concerns regarding the chemicals and male sexual health, explain the phase-out process for PFAS, and give you some tips to avoid PFAS while they are on their way out.

What are PFAS and what food packaging might they be found in?

PFAS is the acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The chemicals in this class are valued for their ability to repel grease, water, and stains. For these reasons, PFAS may be found as a layer on paper products that are meant to hold hot, greasy foods. Fast food wrappers and containers, as well as microwave popcorn bags are some of the most common food packaging that contain PFAS.

What are the potential concerns with PFAS and male sexual health?

While protecting your hands and clothes from leaking hot oil is a good thing, achieving that by laying food packaging with PFAS is likely not.

Recent studies raise red flags regarding the use of PFAS on products that come in contact with food, due to the possibilities of negative consequences to reproductive health with increasing levels. Current studies link PFAS with negative sexual health issues like reduced testosterone, lowered semen quality, and endocrine (hormone) disruption. In men, this could contribute to reduced libido, lowered fertility, and sexual health consequences like ED.

Another concerning aspect of consuming these chemicals is that they are bioaccumulative and have a very long half-life of on the order of 4.8 years. This means that if you consumed some PFAS from a microwave popcorn bag on movie night almost 5 years ago, about half of it is still in your body.

PFAS are in the process of being phased out of food packaging

The FDA approved the use of long-chain and short-chain PFAS for certain food packaging applications way back in the 1960s. And, back then, they were not aware of any potential negative effects associated with these chemicals. 

Luckily, due to new research suggesting that there are likely some things to be concerned about with PFAS, the FDA has been working with companies to phase out the use of these chemicals in food packaging.

The first of the worrying studies were concerning the long-chain PFAS in the early 2000s. After the FDA worked with companies and revoked the authorization of using these chemicals in food packing in 2016, these are no longer used in food packaging applications in the United States.

More recently, studies have shown that short-chain PFAS may also be concerning for human health, and that those may need to be phased out as well. These short-chain PFAS were commonly used as replacements for the long-chain phased-out chemicals starting in the 2010s. Due to this information, the FDA is currently working with companies to phase out short-chain PFAS as well. According to the FDA website, 1 company has already phased out these short-chain PFAS, and 3 more companies agreed to a 3-year phase-out of these chemicals in July 2020.

How to avoid PFAS in food packaging

Since the full phase-out of PFAS has not been completed yet, it is possible to still buy and use food packaging that is using these chemicals as of 2022.

If you wish to avoid using PFAS-containing food packaging, you may want to limit the amount of fast food and microwave popcorn you eat. This may also include other food packaging that seems to have a grease-protective layer or coating.

For some people, this may mean cooking more meals at home using whole food ingredients that require no or minimal packaging. As a positive, eating homemade whole-food-based meals may be a good way to make overall improvements to your health as well.

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If you are dealing with erectile dysfunction symptoms, it is unlikely that the occasional bag of microwave popcorn is the full story. But, it is likely not helping if the packaging contains PFAS which can cause negative hormonal effects in men.

In addition to switching to stovetop popcorn, you may want to consider an effective and well-studied ED medication to help relieve your ED symptoms as needed.

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