Diacetyl (IUPAC systematic name: butanedione or 2,3-butanedione) is a natural byproduct of fermentation. It is a vicinal diketone (two C=O groups, side-by-side) with the molecular formula C4H6O2. Diacetyl occurs naturally in alcoholic beverages and is added to some foods to impart a buttery flavor.
In food products
Diacetyl, along with acetoin
, is one of the compounds that gives butter
its characteristic taste. Because of this, manufacturers of margarines
or similar oil
based products typically add diacetyl and acetoin (along with beta carotene
for the yellow color) to the final product, which would otherwise be tasteless.
In alcoholic beverages
At low levels in alcoholic beverages, it contributes a slipperiness to the feel of the beer or wine in the mouth. As levels increase, it imparts a buttery or butterscotch flavor (butterscotch itself may be devoid of diacetyl).
It is produced during fermentation as a byproduct of valine synthesis. During this synthesis yeast produces α-acetolactate, which escapes the cell and is spontaneously decarboxylated into diacetyl. The yeast then absorbs the diacetyl, and reduces the ketone groups to form acetoin and 2,3-butanediol, relatively flavorless compounds.
Beer sometimes undergoes a diacetyl rest, which entails elevating temperature slightly for two or three days after fermentation is complete, to allow the yeast to absorb the diacetyl it produced earlier in the fermentation cycle. The makers of some wines, such as chardonnay, deliberately promote the production of diacetyl because of the feel and flavors it imparts. It is present in many California chardonnays known as "Butter Bombs," although there is a growing trend back toward the more traditional French styles.
Concentrations from 0.005 mg/L to 1.7 mg/L were measured in chardonnay wines, and the amount needed for the flavor to be noticed is at least 0.2 mg/L.
The United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
has suggested that diacetyl, when used in artificial butter flavoring (as used in many consumer foods), may be hazardous when heated and inhaled over a long period.
Workers in several factories that manufacture artificial butter flavoring have been diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare and serious disease of the lungs. The cases found have been mainly in young, healthy, non-smoking males. There are no known cures for bronchiolitis obliterans except for lung transplantation.
While several authorities have called the disease "Popcorn Worker's Lung," a more accurate term suggested by other doctors may be more appropriate, since the disease can occur in any industry working with diacetyl: diacetyl-induced bronchiolitis obliterans.
After the workers filed a lawsuit against the manufacturers, the United States Environmental Protection Agency began an investigation into the chemical properties of microwave popcorn butter flavoring. In March 2004, former microwave popcorn plant employee Eric Peoples, of Joplin, Missouri, was awarded $20 million for permanent lung-injuries sustained while on the job. On July 19, 2005, jurors awarded $2.7 million to another popcorn plant worker in Missouri for his claim of diacetyl-induced respiratory problems.
On July 26, 2006, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers petitioned the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to promulgate an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from the deleterious health effects of inhaling diacetyl vapors. The petition was followed by a letter of support signed by more than thirty prominent scientists. The matter is under consideration.
There are currently two bills in the California Legislature to ban the use of diacetyl.
Dr. Cecile Rose, pulmonary specialist
's National Jewish Medical and Research Center
, in a letter, warned federal
agencies or regulators
, not just factory workers
, are in danger
of suffering the fatal
popcorn lung disease
from buttery flavoring fumes
popcorn. David Michaels of the George Washington University
School of Public Health first published Rose's letter on his blog
. However, the only sample data known-to-date is the case where a consumer, who ate at least two bags of buttery microwave popcorn daily for 10 years, became diagnosed with the same disease affecting workers exposed to the substance, bronchiolitis obliterans
. His lung problems were linked to breathing the vapors; although rare, the reported man's kitchen also had diacetyl levels comparable to those in popcorn plants.
The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers on September 4, 2007, recommended reduction of diacetyl in butter flavorings. The Pop Weaver brand popcorn from the Weaver Popcorn Company of Indianapolis was the first to replace its butter flavoring with a new ingredient. Weaver makes the Trail's End brand of popcorn sold by the Boy Scouts of America. A ConAgra spokesperson has said it will do the same in a year, and is working to remove the ingredient from its popcorn products.
In a Reuters story dated September 5, 2007, writer Julie Steenhuysen quoted the spokeswoman for ConAgra Foods Inc, maker of Orville Redenbacher and Act II microwave popcorn brands, saying "it will drop diacetyl from its butter-flavored microwave popcorn in the near future."
The EU Commission has declared that diacetyl is legal for use as a flavouring substance in all EU states. As a diketone, diacetyl falls with the EU's flavouring classification Flavouring Group Evaluation 11(FGE.11). A Scientific Panel of the EU Commission evaluated six flavouring substances (not including diacetyl) from FGE.11 in 2004. As part of this study, the Panel reviewed available studies on several other flavourings in FEG.11, including diacetyl. Based on the available data, the Panel reiterated the finding that there were no safety concerns for diacetyl's use as a flavouring. As a result of the Panel's 2004 study, acetylacetone
(FL 07.191) was found to be genotoxic in vitro and in vivo, and was therefore deleted from the register of permitted flavouring substances. Recently, the European Food Safety Authority
(EFSA), the EU's food safety regulatory body, stated that that its scientific panel on food additives and flavourings (AFC) was evaluating diacetyl along with other flavourings as part of a larger study. "The experts of the EFSA AFC panel and its working group on food additives will look at this issue to see if new scientific evidence is available that may require further actions. If the experts conclude that consumer exposure to diacetyl can reach levels well above those considered as safe and, that a possible health risk for consumers cannot be excluded when inhaling diacetyl, EFSA will give priority to the re-evaluation of this substance and provide detailed scientific advice.
- Research project on diacetyl reduction during beer fermentation* Toxicology data
- NIOSH Alert: Preventing Lung Disease and Workers who Use or Make Flavorings
- Harber, Philip; Saechao, Kaochoy; & Boomus, Catherine. Diacetyl-induced lung disease. Toxicological Reviews 2006;vol 25(4):261-72.
- A Case of Regulatory Failure - Popcorn Workers Lung, from www.defendingscience.org.
- Scientists Urge Secretary of Labor to Protect Workers from Diacetyl, a press release from defendingscience.org. Links to studies on the health effects of diacetyl, and to a variety of related documents including the recent OSHA petition and the scientists' letter of support may be found here.
- Flavoring suspected in illness, Washington Post, May 7, 2007.
- NIOSH International Safety Card for 2,3-butanedione
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health - Flavorings-Related Lung Disease
- IFIC - Diacetyl
- ConAgra Foods, Inc. - Diacetyl