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Popcorn: Food for Thought

By on February 22nd, 2012 Categories: Uncategorized

What’s not to love about popcorn? It’s easy to make, filling, and for me, the perfect nibble during a night in with my favorite movie. On its own, popcorn is a great snack. It’s naturally high in fiber, low in calories, contains no sodium and is fat-free. But the ways in which it is grown or prepared can be cause for concern. So before you settle in with a big bowl and the latest awards show, here’s some food for thought:

Microwave reviews

It’s hard to resist the buttery flavor and aroma that comes from a bag of freshly popped corn. But it’s not just butter that’s tempting your taste buds. It’s an aroma-enhancing chemical called diacetyl that’s used in many food products, including microwave popcorn, to add or increase butter flavoring. Today, there is growing concern that diacetyl may have some link to serious health issues. Experts believe that when heated, diacetyl produces a toxic gas, and that long-term exposure to these fumes may eventually lead to breathing problems and possibly lung disease. While this concern applies mainly to workers who make the snack, there is also some question as to the extent of risk we face at home.

Along with diacetyl, microwave popcorn may expose us to other toxic chemicals. The grease- and water-resistant coating used in the paper packaging contains chemicals called perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs). For me, this is of particular concern, since PFAAs are known to be hormone disrupters and are under investigation by the Breast Cancer and Environment Research Centers for their possible role in early puberty and breast cancer risk. PFAAs are commonly used in non-stick cookware, but microwave bags provide a much higher exposure. This is because the high heat from microwaving may be more likely to cause the chemicals to be released into the popcorn and air. Some research estimates show that more than 20% of our exposure to PFAAs occurs from microwave popcorn bags.

Behind the scenes

It’s often hard to know where popcorn comes from and to what chemicals it may have been exposed. For those of us concerned about pesticides, we often rely on the Environmental Working Group (EWG) for guidance as to which types of fruits and vegetables are more or less likely to be contaminated with pesticides. But when it comes to popcorn, there’s no easy answer. The EWG’s “Clean 15” lists corn as having low levels of exposure, but it’s talking about sweet corn — a completely different crop than popcorn. So unless your brand of popcorn is USDA certified organic, you can’t be sure of your pesticide exposure risk.

Another mystery is whether or not our popcorn has been genetically modified. This has become a hot topic recently, since the health effects of genetic modification are unknown. While the U.S. Popcorn Board claims that no crops have been genetically altered, published research shows evidence otherwise.

A bust at the box office

For us popcorn lovers, a trip to the movie theater is incomplete without a bucket of crunchy salty goodness playing a leading role. Unfortunately, we may be left sitting in the dark about its nutritional content. According to an independent analysis of movie theater popcorn, a small bucket without buttery topping contained 34 grams of saturated fat and 550 milligrams of sodium (salt) with 670 calories. A medium/large bucket had 60 grams of saturated fat, 980 milligrams of sodium, and 1,200 calories. The American Heart Association recommends that we take in less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium each day. So even just a small bucket of popcorn puts us at almost half of our daily allowance. Much of the fat and calories in popcorn is the result of the large amount of cooking oils used. Plus, the cooking oils used are often unhealthy, containing trans fats.

Write your own script

The good news is, you don’t have to give up popcorn altogether — just make a few edits:

Consider your options. Microwave may be the most popular choice, but it isn’t your only option at home:

  • Try popping corn the old-fashioned way, on your stovetop. Drizzle a little oil in an iron or stainless steel pan, add kernels, cover, and shake until popped.
  • Use an air popper for a healthy choice. Just add kernels, and a steady flow of hot air raises the temperature and gently pops the corn.
  • If you just can’t ditch the microwave, you can use a microwave-safe glass or ceramic bowl (not plastic) with a loose-fitting lid to let the steam out and keep the popcorn in. You can also try using a plain brown paper lunch bag. Just put in the kernels and fold the top. This way you can quickly prepare your popcorn and avoid the health risks of commercial bagged corn.

Go organic. Choose organic popping corn to avoid pesticide residue or kernels that have been genetically modified.

Get creative. Avoid or limit added ingredients such as butter and salt. Get creative…try some other toppings like garlic powder, hot sauce, or grated parmesan. Wanna know my favorite? I melt a bar of dark chocolate with almonds and then fold it into a bowl of air-popped popcorn. I stick it in the fridge to cool off so it doesn’t make a total mess when I wolf it down. It’s THE BEST — and you don’t need a lot of chocolate to make it great. It’s perfect while watching movies at home, and I also bring it out to the movie theater (my local theater hasn’t thrown me out yet for this). If you bring it out, be sure to bring napkins because it is messy.

Make it dinner and a movie. Eat a healthy, filling meal before going to the movies. If you’re feeling satisfied, you can avoid giving in to temptation.

Send us your vote for best popcorn topping or healthy suggestions for preparing popcorn at home.

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president, and chief medical officer of Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 14 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.


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