I made popcorn by putting a layer of olive oil at the bottom of a steel pot, putting in the kernels and cooking it on high heat for a minute or so. When it started popping, I noticed that smoke with an acrid smell started coming out of the pot in big quantities. I tried not to breathe it and made all of the popcorn pop.

I then ate all of the popcorn, and realized that the smoke might have come from the oil burning up. The popcorn had a bit of that flavor too.

I'm concerned about possible health issues arising from this. Was the popcorn I just ate poisonous? Is there a risk of developing cancer involved in eating food that has been cooked this way (I've eaten popcorn made like this a few other times, but the smoke was never this apparent)?

Should I use a different oil, or is there no safe oil for this kind of cooking?

  • 8
    You're fine. Relax. (To sourdoughs and moderators: Would it be pushing it to suggest that he smoke another bowl?)
    – Jolenealaska
    Oct 15, 2013 at 13:38
  • Are you dead yet?
    – milo
    May 6, 2023 at 15:55

2 Answers 2


Olive oil has a notoriously low smoke point. If you're looking for something nutritious to pop corn with, try avocado oil.

While burned food tastes yucky, and there is (some) evidence that a steady diet consisting mainly of burnt olive oil may be (slightly) carcinogenic, it is highly unlikely you did anything worse than ruin your munchies.

  • 1
    Where the heck does one find avacado oil other than the online source you cited? There are plenty of easily obtained high-smoke point oils appropriate for popping corn available in any grocery store. Oct 16, 2013 at 3:29
  • Haven't we yet gotten past sterotyping olive oils? Yes, extra-virgin olive oils have a low smoke point (possibly as low as 320F/160C, but extra-light (highly refined) olive oil has a higher smoke point (over 450F/230C).
    – Joe
    Oct 16, 2013 at 3:47
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    @CareyGregory - Amazon, the local health food store, the Home Goods section of T.J. Maxx (where I got mine), the local Job Lot (where I'll get the next bottle once I run out), the organic section of the local supermarket - it's not that exotic in this day and age, has a high smoke point, adds a nice flavor profile, and makes health-nuts happy. Too expensive to deep fry with, but popcorn is an ideal application. Oct 16, 2013 at 11:54
  • @Joe - I'm concerned about olive oil being actual olive oil. If you're in the US, unless it's domestically sourced, the odds are better than even you're getting adulterated product. It's hard to find domestic light olive oil - easier to source refined avocado oil. Oct 16, 2013 at 11:56

There are two sides of your question, a food safety side and a nutrition side.

The food safety answers the question: does the event of eating this popcorn add to your chances of you ending up in hospital with acute symptoms of food poisoning? To that, there is a clear answer: no. Burnt oil is not acutely toxic.

The nutrition answers the question: does the event of eating this popcorn add to your chances of contracting a disease which will reduce your quality of life or kill you (e.g. cancer)? I wish I knew that. The point is, nobody knows for sure (although many people, both legitimate researchers and quacks, have hypotheses on that). We have excluded nutrition questions from our scope, because we cannot find objective answers to them. But you can relax a bit: eating this batch of popcorn was not your certain death-by-cancer sentence, just like smoking a cigarette.

Most cooks avoid burning the oil, at least for taste reasons. Use a fat with a high smoke point (such as oil sold especially for frying) for your popcorn. At popping temperatures, it will likely pyrolise, but not to the point of ending up as char. The health consequences should be roughly the same as from, say, eating pommes frittes, whatever those might be.

  • Thanks. I agree that eating a bowl of popcorn won't kill me. I just thought that it'd be important to clear this once and for all before I ignorantly proceed to eat something potentially harmful for a long period of time.
    – kettlepot
    Oct 15, 2013 at 14:18
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    @GabrieleCirulli it is very possible that it is harmful over a long period of time. We are just not the ones who can tell you that.
    – rumtscho
    Oct 15, 2013 at 15:12
  • @GabrieleCirulli But as long as you don't burn all your food all the time, you're probably fine either way.
    – Cascabel
    Oct 15, 2013 at 17:07
  • I don't you can exclude nutrition issues from a site that claims to be a forum for food preparation. It's just running scared of a crucial issue of food.
    – Cynthia
    Oct 17, 2013 at 7:27
  • @BlessedGeek Yes, we can exclude it, and we do. Nutrition advice from laypeople is as dangerous as legal advice or medical prescriptions from laypeople. So we don't even allow our users to give it. Is this "running scared"? Yes, it is. We are running scared from bad content. Whoever needs nutrition advice should go to a professional, not to a crowdsourced site.
    – rumtscho
    Oct 17, 2013 at 9:58

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