Cinema goers know all about the legendary kernel, which when heated forms into fluffy popcorn for a tasty, readily consumable snack. Without the familiar smell as you walk into your local cinema, the whole experience just wouldn’t be the same. Although it has evolved over the years into a modern luxury, popcorn is actually an ancient dish. Archaeologists and scientists from the Natural History Museum in Washington have discovered evidence maize had been domesticated 9000 years ago in Mexico, and that it was being popped 7000 years ago in Peru.
These days, when you scan the shelves of a supermarket, you will be confronted with an impressive selection; butter, toffee, salt, and sweetened flavours are all mass produced and readily available. The phenomenon is mirroring what happened to crisps around a decade ago, when the salty snack became chunky, exotic, and gentrified. The public never looked back, and gained a lot of weight as a result. With popcorn now a mass produced commodity there are some unpleasant health effects unwary shoppers may have missed. Popcorn is, however, a very healthy snack, and to exploit this all you need are the facts. This handy five step guide will help you pop those kernels the right way.
1. Popcorn may be healthier than fruit and vegetables.
Is popcorn healthy? The answer, not including commercially distributed popcorn, is almost certainly a “YES!” In its purest sense popcorn is very close to nature; if it’s dry popped in hot air there are no oils, fats or sugars added to it – what you eat is simply the inside of the kernel after a little physical manipulation. And the facts speak for themselves: a single portion of popcorn contains more antioxidants than all the fruit and veg most people eat in a day, as noted in a study by Scranton University. Antioxidants keep molecules harmful to cells in check, and are present in many fresh fruits and vegetables. Popcorn also has a large amount of vitamins; folate, niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, vitamins B, A, E, and K, as well as being a source of iron, potassium, zinc, and polyphenols which contain the antioxidants to fight off cancers and cardiovascular health problems.
To add to this, after a search on Calorie Count, a single cup (25 g) of air-popped corn has a mere 31 calories, with 0.3 g of fats (0.03 g saturated, 0.16 g polyunsaturated, 0.1 g monounsaturated). Popped in oil, however, the values above can roughly be tripled, but compared to a pack of salted sunflower-oil-fried crisps, popcorn’s attraction suddenly becomes apparent: for the same portion size, crisps weigh in at 128 calories, with a whopping 8.2 g of fat (0.6 g saturated, 0.7 g polyunsaturated, 6.5 g monounsaturated). This is around 13% of your total recommended fat intake in one standard pack. Popcorn, clearly, is the better option
2. Stick with wholegrain kernels and steer clear of microwaveable varieties.
Some modern brands are resorting to the traditional method of popcorn making, minus additives, leaving you to enjoy a healthy snack. It’s worth chasing down some of these brands. In the UK companies such as Graze and Proper Corn are offering “gourmet” popcorn in all its health giving glory, with flavours such as black pepper, and fiery worcester sauce and sun dried tomato making up a low carb, low calorie, low sugar and salt snack. These firms tend to use whole grain kernels in order to offer the maximum health benefits; whole grains use the full health properties, consisting of the bran, germ, and endosperm. These are packed full of healthy oils, vitamin E, B vitamins, and the bran’s also a great source of fibre.
Unfortunately there are many commercial popcorn brands with mass produced, chemically overloaded varieties, with one of the main culprits being microwave popcorn. As a convenient, enjoyable snack this is a glorious modern day luxury but, sadly, these often tend to be crammed full of unpleasant toxins. Whilst your microwaved Butter Popcorn may taste exactly like butter, the truth is it simply isn’t – the pleasant buttery taste is supplied by diacetyl. To add to the chemical woes, the American Food and Drug Administration has been studying the effects of heating the plastics coating the insides of the microwaveable packets. Although the risk to the general public is considered slight, these chemicals stay in the body for a long time and can accumulate, causing various complications. The Environmental Work Group (EWG) add to this with alarming news; “It’s no secret that diacetyl, the chemical that gives butter-flavored microwave popcorn it’s buttery-ness, has caused serious and sometimes fatal lung disease in workers in flavoring and popcorn factories.” Due to this some top brands of microwave popcorn, such as Pop Weaver, announced they would stop using diacetyl in 2009. However, to be on the safe side you should find genuine popcorn makers who rely on traditional, healthy practices. You could even take this a step further with our next step!
3. Cook popcorn at home for a nutritious, cheap snack.
We take popcorn so much for granted we might not stop to think about what a natural marvel it is. The process is aptly named because it really is popping like an overinflated balloon, the only difference being that instead of air it’s superheated, pressurised steam causing the hull to pop. Because the hull doesn’t allow water in or out, when the small amounts of moisture inside it become extremely hot, they expand and squeeze amid the natural oils and starches. Then when the pressure is high enough compared to the pressure outside, the kernel lets go and the gelatinous mixture inside blows out into the familiar shape and rapidly cools and sets – all in the blink of an eye. With so much energy in the process, it’s remarkable the kernel doesn’t disintegrate upon popping, but the chemical structures of the inner starches just about keep it together. For a detailed scientific analysis you can head here.
It’s such a wonderful, fun process there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy cooking popcorn in your home. This will help eliminate any added nasties from the end result, and you can monitor how much sugar or salt you add. All you need to do is head to a nearby health store and pick up a bag of organic kernels – you can experiment with flavours and oils, but a stove, pan, and a cover to set off the popcorn is all that is required. You can buy a 500g bag of organic popcorn kernels for around £5 ($6 or $7) making it an excellent choice for family snacks.
4. It’s a good dieting food.
Hunger pangs are a nuisance if you’re trying to lose weight, or just attempting to lead a healthy lifestyle. Popcorn, in its light, filing form, is one way to banish those annoying pangs and receive a health boost whilst you’re at it. There is a new fangled Popcorn Dietyou can consider, although we recommend you steer clear of a diet focusing of one ingredient. Humans need a wide variety of foods to remain healthy, and popcorn can act as a contributor to this overall health.
As a dieting tool popcorn has plenty to offer, not least its ability to fend off hunger pangs. This is, in part, due to its glycemic index (GI). The United States Department of Agriculture has highlighted popcorn’s good GI, a term which describes blood sugar levels after food containing carbohydrates has been consumed. Foods with a low GI are desirable as they won’t spike your blood sugar and will leave you feeling fuller for longer. With a GI of 55 (which compares to two slices of white bread at a GI of 88) it is clear consuming popcorn in small portions is an excellent way to manage your weight, or to fend off those pesky hunger pangs. However, do remember moderation is important and overindulgence should be curbed. With this in mind popcorn can, and should, be enjoyed in sensible portions as part of a varied and balanced diet.
5. Popcorn is likely to make you more popular!
As a positive social tool popcorn making should not be underestimated. Whilst it’s a simple process to make popcorn (refer to point 3 for more details) it is likely most people simply don’t know how to, or would revert to local stores for their supply. I would argue, however, becoming a popcorn making specialist would wow your friends and family at social events. Personalising recipes and impressing your nearest and dearest with your kernel popping skills could have all manner of benefits; it’s a good conversation point, makes you appear very skilled, and as feel-good-factors go the positive feedback would certainly be an excellent self-confidence boost! All in the name of popcorn.