My love for popcorn all started at my next-door neighbor’s house. The Mullallys had six kids and there were usually a few neighbor kids over at any given time, so we had a good pack. Anyway, Mrs. Mullally was a fabulous cook and would serve up a gigantic quantity of popcorn in a tin bowl. She always had parmesan, salt, and butter in it. There was probably some secret Italian ingredient I didn’t know about, too. Anyway, all of us would jump on top of the table with the bowl in the middle and inhale. This was serious business. No words were uttered except the occasional, “Johnny, you’re hogging it all.” We all learned to double fist at that table. There was an art to getting your share of the popcorn without looking grabby before it was gone.
What’s not to love about popcorn? It’s quick to prepare, it’s filling, and it’s healthy (a low-calorie, high-fiber whole grain, full of protein, B vitamins, and antioxidants). Unfortunately, most microwave popcorn presents some serious health risks. Why should you think twice before throwing a bag of Orville Redenbacher in the microwave and sitting down in front of a good movie? Here are a couple of reasons:
Genetically Modified Organisms
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are created by inserting genes from organisms like bacteria, viruses, or animals into other, often unrelated, species. This process breeds new organisms that would never occur in nature, creating new, unpredictable health risks. Studies indicate a link between GMOs and problems like food allergies, organ damage, infertility, and immune dysfunction. The crops most commonly genetically engineered are soy, cotton, and—you guessed it—corn. Most microwave popcorn in the United States is made from genetically modified corn.
For a more thorough look at the dangers of GMOs and strategies for avoiding them in your family’s diet, check out the Greenpeace guide to GMO-free food.
Diacetyl (also known as 2,3-butanedione) is a chemical compound used as a butter flavoring—particularly for microwave popcorn. It occurs naturally in some foods like milk and butter, but a problem seems to arise when encountering it in unnaturally high quantities. For example, a disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, or “popcorn lung,” has been associated with overexposure to diacetyl, mostly among people who work with the flavoring in a factory setting. The FDA has not yet studied the effects of diacetyl on consumers, but it may be wise to avoid it until the verdict is in. Some popcorn manufacturers have begun selling popcorn labeled “no diacetyl,” but it’s important to check out what they’re using instead. Some substitutes (like starter distillate [which eventually creates diacetyl], acetoin, and 2,3 pentanedione) appear to present respiratory risks every bit as serious as the problems linked to diacetyl.
Popcorn Done Right
But that’s no reason to give up on popcorn altogether. My favorite GMO-free, diacetyl-free, all-natural popcorn is made by Boulder Popcorn. Another good choice is Amish Country Popcorn.
Once you’ve found your kernels, how will you prepare your snack? While the microwave is certainly the most popular method, it isn’t your only option.
Remember your mom making popcorn on the stovetop? It’s a little more work than the microwave, but not much:
- Put 3 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan. A cast iron or stainless steel pan works great.
- Add one or two kernels and wait for it to heat up. You’ll know it’s ready when the kernels in the pan pop.
- Add a third of a cup of kernels and put on the lid (quickly!).
- Remove the pan from the heat and wait 30 seconds. (Counting out loud at this point is fun to do with kids.) This brings all of the other kernels to a near-popping temperature so that, when they are put back on the heat, they all pop at about the same time, which prevents burning.
- Put the pan back on the burner and gently shake the pan until the rest of the kernels pop.
A Whirley Pop popcorn maker is an aluminum pot with a lid and a crank on the side. Place it on the stove burner and, as the kernels are heating and popping, turn the crank, which stirs the popcorn kernels inside the pot. This heats the kernels evenly and prevents burning.
These machines are just as fast as the microwave, but they make about twice as much popcorn as a microwave bag. Plus there’s no trash to throw away when you’re done. They are made in the US and come with a manufacturer’s lifetime guarantee.
Before the invention of microwave popcorn, hot oil popcorn makers were the most popular popping devices, and you can still buy them online. But a healthier choice is the hot air popcorn machine. Just add your kernels, and a steady flow of hot air raises their temperature and gently pops the corn. Most air poppers are built so the popped corn flows out of the popper and into a bowl.
If You Just Can’t Ditch the Microwave
You can buy a special, microwave-safe popcorn dish so you can prepare your healthy popcorn in the microwave—and avoid the health risks of bagged microwave popcorn.
The Whirley Pop machine, air popper, and microwave dish are all available on Boulder Popcorn’s website.
Ideas for Toppings
I have a new favorite place to eat popcorn—the Roslyn Theatre. And I found a new favorite topping at this jewel of a theater: yeast. That’s right; you read correctly. Brewer’s yeast is what everyone in Roslyn orders on popcorn. I tried it and um, fell in love!!! I think everyone should go to Roslyn to try this. Realistically, that can’t happen, so the good news is you can get it online or in bulk at most health food stores. Make sure you buy it in its inactive form; active yeast can flourish in your system and cause health problems.
It may not sound appetizing—and it certainly doesn’t taste good on its own—but with popcorn, it takes on a delicious, nutty, almost cheesy flavor. Give it a try; you won’t be disappointed to find something that is not only tasty, but also a great nutritional supplement. Brewer’s yeast has tons of health benis:
- Low fat
- Low sodium
- Low calories
- Low carbohydrates
- Source of Vitamin B complex
- Source of highly concentrated protein
- Source of folic acid, potassium, thiamin, niacin, and chromium (needed for the body to produce insulin)
- Increases metabolism
- Lowers cholesterol
Some other ideas for healthy toppings are garlic powder, hot sauce, curry powder, or a little drizzled agave nectar.
So find your popcorn, choose your popper, pick out some toppings, and you’re ready for a healthy, delicious snack. Enjoy!
Thanks for the information about microwave popcorn, Paige! As a popcorn lover myself, we only use the Whirley Pop. It’s delicious with a little sea salt and butter. If we want to get fancy, I put a drop of truffle oil in the butter.
I picked up some brewer’s yeast from the Fred Meyer bulk section and tried it on my popcorn; it’s delicious! (I spritz a little spray canola oil on the popcorn first so the yeast has something to adhere to.)
I tried the popcorn flavored with brewer’s yeast for the first time at one of my Bradley Childbirth classes. It was delicious, but I can’t get myself to actually buy some and use it, the name is such a turn off :-/
Not a fan of the yeast personally. I’ll stick with the butter and salt!