The Kernel of Truth About Popcorn

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  • It’s no surprise that popcorn is one of America’s favorite foods. It was first domesticated in the Americas thousands of years ago. Archaeologists discovered popcorn ears in New Mexico that date to more than 5,600 years ago.1 Today the crunchy snack is a mainstay at movie theaters, carnivals, and in many of our kitchens.

    Popcorn is often lumped in with junk food, but it’s the only 100 percent unprocessed, whole-grain food we eat, and it boasts some notable nutritional benefits. It even contains more polyphenols per serving than most fruits and vegetables. (Polyphenols are antioxidants that protect cells from damage.) Of course, don’t ditch fruits and veggies; they contain lots of other nutrients popcorn doesn’t provide. But when you’re in the mood to nosh on something crunchy, popcorn is a great choice.

    Before you get popping, know this: Not all popcorn is created equal. Read on to learn about the popcorn products you should avoid, discover easy ways to prepare popcorn, and try delicious recipes – all made with real-food ingredients.

    The Problem with Processed Popcorn

    Pre-packaged microwave and stovetop popcorn is convenient and smells divine, but it’s associated with health risks. While it may be getting safer due to campaigns by environmental groups, it’s probably best to avoid processed versions for the following reasons:

    • Chemicals: In 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency studied prepackaged microwave popcorn and discovered the steam from the bags contains various flavoring and packaging chemicals, 80 percent of which were released when opening the bag.2
    • Perfluorooctanoic substances (PFOA): This class of chemicals, used to line popcorn bags and pizza boxes, has been linked to kidney and testicular cancers and birth defects. Eight companies agreed to phase out PFOA by 2015. But it’s difficult to find information about whether any popcorn makers still use it.3
    • Diacetyl: Until recently, popcorn makers flavored popcorn with this chemical.4Popcorn-factory workers, a movie theater employee, and at least one consumer have developed lung disease, likely from ultrafine airborne particles of diacetyl.5Subsequently, the largest popcorn manufacturers voluntarily stopped using it. However, the chemicals used to replace diacetyl may be equally as toxic, according to environmental consumer advocates.6
    • Trans Fats: Some packaged microwave and stovetop popcorns contain five times the recommended daily dose of trans fats, or partially hydrogenated oils that have been linked to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.7 The Federal Drug Administration banned the use of trans fats last year, but food manufacturers have three years to remove them.

    Safer processed popcorn is great news for consumers. But the best way to ensure popcorn is a safe and healthy snack is to buy kernels and make it yourself.

    On the next page we share more about choosing kernels.

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