Jan 22, 2021

This Tuesday (January 19) was National Popcorn Day.

I grew up in a military household in the 1960s and 1970s, and my father spent a good portion of my childhood in Vietnam.  When Dad was away, Mom would find inventive and inexpensive ways to entertain and feed us.  As an inexpensive snack, popcorn held a central spot in our home.  As kids, it was the first food we learned to cook and we ate a lot of it. Having a sleepover with a friend? Make popcorn. Watching TV? Make popcorn.  Working on homework after school? Make popcorn. Going to the drive-in movies on a Friday night? Make a ton of popcorn!

The history of popcorn goes back about 4,000-5,000 years.  There is evidence that the ancient Aztecs used it in their ceremonies.  Spanish explorers reported of a grain that bursts when heated and looked like a white flower. In South America, kernels of popcorn found in burial grounds in the coastal deserts of North Chile were so well preserved they would still pop even though they were 1,000 years old. It’s believed that popcorn was part of the first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth Colony in 1621.

Popcorn gained popularity in the U.S. in the mid 1800s. The popcorn pushcart was invented in the 1890s and popcorn became even more popular as a treat at public events.  There are stories of popcorn purveyors who ran successful and profitable businesses during the Great Depression since popcorn was an affordable treat a family could enjoy. Jolly Time Popcorn was the first food item to receive the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” (an award it has held since the 1920s).

Nowadays, popcorn continues to enjoy massive popularity—selling over a billion pounds of popcorn annually. Sports stadiums, amusement parks and movie theaters sell huge quantities, but it is estimated that 70% of all popcorn is eaten at home.

Popcorn can be an extremely healthy snack for people of all ages. Popcorn is a whole grain food—providing the benefits of lessened risk of heart disease and help with weight control.  It is also an antioxidant and can help with the prevention of degenerative diseases such osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and diabetes. Air-popped popcorn contains no cholesterol and is virtually fat-free. 

But, there’s the rub—air-popped popcorn.  I know a few people that enjoy air-popped popcorn, but most of us enjoy our popcorn buttery and salty.  How healthy or unhealthy popcorn is depends on how it’s prepared. 

The best option is to air-pop the popcorn.  If you want oil-popped popcorn, the healthiest option is to make your own and choose a healthy oil.  Olive and canola oils are good choices of oils typically found in today’s kitchen cupboard. Once your popcorn is made, instead of butter and salt, try sprinkling it with a little grated parmesan cheese or some light spices.  Want a little sweetness? Try sprinkling with cinnamon.

Packaged microwave popcorn is the least healthy option.  If you use microwave popcorn, check the ingredients and stay away from “partially hydrogenated” oils, which is where trans fats occur.  Check the nutrition information—most microwave popcorns are packed with fat and salt.  In particular, watch the servings per package.  One bowl of popcorn is usually three or four servings. 

There are now microwave popcorn bowls that work very well, making a bowl of air-popped corn without a large appliance to store. I found a silicone popper that collapses when not in use. It makes perfect popcorn in 2 minutes in my microwave.

According to The Popcorn Board (www.popcorn.org), a national commodity promotion and research program formed in April 1998 by an Act of Congress, Americans consume 13 billion quarts of popped popcorn annually or 42 quarts per man, woman and child.  I think I’ll eat one of my quarts this weekend as I watch the AFC Championship game.