Do You Know Nutrition: Prepare popcorn the old-fashioned way

By Phylis Canion
Dec. 25, 2012 at 6:25 a.m.

We are all popcorn eaters in my family and have been for years. We even made popcorn garland for the Christmas tree as a kid. Now, my kids are asking about the health benefits of popcorn. Does all corn pop? What makes it pop? Is it dangerous to pop it in the microwave? Plus, many other questions. Can you help me out here? My kids would appreciate it.

Scientifically known as zea mays everta, popcorn is one of six types of maize/corn and has been around since the 1500s. History indicates that popcorn was discovered by accident when kernels were thrown into the fire and began popping. The types of corn are pod, sweet, flour, dent, flint and popcorn.

Of all the varieties of corn, popcorn is the only variety that pops and needs between 13-14 percent moisture to pop (that is why some kernels lay un-popped in the pan). Where popcorn is so different from the other varieties of corn, is that popcorn has a very thick pericarp or hull. The hull allows pressure from the heated water (from the inside) to build until it eventually bursts.

The inside starch becomes gelatinous while it heats up, but when the hull bursts, the gelatinized starch spills out, cools and results in the familiar popcorn shapes. There are two basic popcorn shapes when it is popped known as snowflake and mushroom. The Snowflake variety is most frequently used in movie theaters and ballparks because it looks and pops bigger. The mushroom shape is used for candy confections simply because it does not crumble. The recommended method of preparing popcorn is the old-fashioned way of putting oil in a pan, covering the bottom of the pan with popcorn, putting a lid on it and shaking the pot as the popcorn is popping.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, a chemical used to coat microwave popcorn bags breaks down during the cooking into a chemical called perfluorooctanoic. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified perfluorooctanoic as a "likely carcinogen." Also under study by the FDA is whether consumers can develop lung disease from inhaling diacetyl, a chemical used to give microwave popcorn its buttery taste.

To avoid inhaling this dangerous toxin, if you must microwave it, is to always open the cooked bags away from your face in a well-ventilated area. Popcorn is a great snack if prepared the old-fashioned way and can be fun family time in the kitchen, especially when you barely open the lid and a kernel pops out and you see who can catch it.

Thought for the week: Tough times never last but tough people do.

Phylis B. Canion is a doctor of naturopathic medicine and is a certified nutritional consultant, email her at This column is for nutritional information only and is not intended to treat, diagnose or cure.



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