Popcorn was first discovered thousands of years ago by the people living in what is now Peru. It is one of the oldest forms of corn; evidence of popcorn from 3600 B.C. was found in New Mexico, while even older evidence was found in Peru. It is estimated that these remnants date from as early as 4700 B.C.
During the Great Depression, popcorn was fairly inexpensive at 5–10 cents a bag and became popular. Thus, while other businesses failed, the popcorn business thrived and
became a source of income for many struggling farmers. During World War II, sugar rations diminished candy production, and Americans compensated by eating three times as much popcorn as they had before.
Each kernel of popcorn contains a certain amount of moisture and oil. Unlike most other grains, the outer hull of the popcorn kernel is both strong and impervious to moisture and the starch inside consists almost entirely of a hard, dense type.
As the oil and the water around the kernel are heated, they turn the moisture in the
kernel, which has a moisture-proof hull, into a superheated pressurized steam.
Under these conditions, the starch inside the kernel gelatinizes, softens, and becomes pliable. The pressure continues to increase until the breaking point of the hull is
reached: a pressure of about 135 psi (930 kPa) and a temperature of 180 °C (356 °F).
The hull ruptures rapidly, causing a sudden drop in pressure inside the kernel and a corresponding rapid expansion of the steam, which expands the starch and proteins of the
endosperm into airy foam. As the foam rapidly cools, the starch and protein polymers set into the familiar crispy puff. Special varieties are grown to give improved popping yield. Some wild types will pop, but the cultivated strain is Zea mays everta, which is a special kind of flint corn.
Air-popped popcorn is naturally high in dietary fiber and antioxidants, low in calories and fat, and free of sugar and sodium. This can make it an attractive snack to people with dietary restrictions on the intake of calories, fat, and/or sodium. For the sake of flavor, however, large amounts of fat, sugar, and sodium are often added to prepared popcorn, which can quickly convert it to a very poor choice for those on restricted diets.
Adding to popcorn’s wholesome reputation, researchers at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania reported the popcorn has more antioxidant substances called polyphenols than fruits and vegetables. Polyphenols have been linked to a reduction in heart disease and certain cancers. And, since it’s 100% whole grain, popcorn is also a great source of fiber – you get 5 grams in a 4 cup portion. That’s pretty impressive for a snack food.
Popcorn will never be a replacement of produce, which is brimming with essential nutrients and antiozidants not found in grains. But it’s still a terrific, low0cal munchie. You do have to steer clear of the varieties doused in butter, oik, and/or salt, ingredients that negate the health perks.
One particularly notorious example of this first came to public attention in the mid-1990s, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest produced a report about “Movie Popcorn”, which became the subject of a widespread publicity campaign. The movie theaters surveyed used coconut oil to pop the corn, and then topped it with butter or margarine. “A medium-size buttered popcorn”, the report said, “contains more fat than a breakfast of bacon and eggs, a Big Mac and fries, and a steak dinner combined.” The practice continues today. For example, according to DietFacts.com, a small popcorn from Regal Cinema Group (the largest theater chain in the United States) still contains 29 g of saturated fat,. the equivalent of a full day-and-a-half’s reference daily intake.
Your best bet is “naked” air-popped popcorn, made with a hot air popper. Popped without any oik, this diet-friendly snack “weighs in” at just 30 calories per cup. That’s a steal in the snack workd, considering a cup of potato chips will cost you 150 calories and the same portion of “snack mix” clocks in at 220.
Microwave popcorn is convenient, but it has its drwwbacks, even if you choose the light or low0fat varieties. Diacetyl and related compounds used in “artficial butter flavoring” can cause lung disease when inhaled in large quantities, such as by factory workers employed at microwave popcorn manufacturing plants. And most bags are coated with PFCs )perfluorinate compoounds), chemicals that have been shown to suppress immune function in children and cuase cancer in animals. In fact, most manufacturers are working on phasing out use of this chemical.
For your own microwave popcorn simply pour 3-4 tablespoons plain kernels into a brown paper lunch bag, fold over the top of the bag twice to seal it closed, and microwave for about 2 minutes or until the popping slows to a few seconds between pops. (cook time will vary depending on the microwave, so it may take you a few tries to figure out the perfect pop time for your unit.)
If you are looking to add some personality to your popcorn, experiment with these ideas:
– Lightly mist with olive oil and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and black pepper.
– Sprinkle with chili powder and a dash of coarse sea salt
Top with nutritional yeast, a vegan source of vitamin B-12 for a cheese-like flavor
Make traditional air-popped corn into a modest-calroie sweet treat by mixing one cup of popcorn with dark chocolate shavings and a dusting of cinnamon.
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