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Popcorn: Friend or Foe?

popcorn

We haven’t been able to go to the movies for the past 6 months, so popcorn may have dropped off your radar. This week, we want remind you about the benefits of popcorn as a fun, healthy snack and talk about how to make your own at home. Note: this is NOT the extra-large tub of movie theater popcorn with extra “butter” (pumped out of a machine….ick!) and salt.

As an unprocessed whole grain, popcorn high in indigestible fiber. One 3-cup serving contains 3 grams of fiber, which is pretty good for a snack. Fiber helps with digestion and feeds your microbiome – the “good bacteria” in your gut will produce beneficial compounds if you give them lots of fiber. Those little hulls that catch in your teeth? They’ve got beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin for your eyes, as well as polyphenols. If you make your own at home, popcorn is very low in fat and calories. Avoid packaged popcorn, which is not only expensive, but contains added oil and salt (and you don’t control the amount).

You might have heard that people with a digestive condition called diverticular disease can’t eat popcorn. This is a condition in which the walls of the gut have small pockets, or outpouchings. For years, it was thought that eating popcorn was bad because the indigestible fiber would catch in those pouches, causing inflammation (diverticulitis). However, that thinking has since changed and we now know that high-fiber foods such as popcorn do not trigger diverticulitis attacks. Of course, if your doctor has advised you not to eat popcorn, please follow that guidance.

Then, there’s the corn and GMO (genetically modified organisms) question. GM means that the organism (the plant) has had its genetic material changed in a way that does not occur naturally, such as to insert a gene that makes the plan more resistant to plant diseases or more able to survive when herbicides are applied. Upwards of 80% of field corn and sweet corn grown in the US has been genetically modified. People feel strongly about the potential health effects of GM foods on both sides.

The good news, if you are concerned about GMO? Popcorn is a distinct type of corn from field and sweet corn and has not been genetically modified. Any kind of popcorn you buy that was grown in the US – organic or not – is non-GMO. Most of the popcorn eaten throughout the world is grown in the US. However, you may still want to buy organic popcorn to avoid exposure to pesticides. Remember that by USDA standards, organic food cannot be genetically modified.

How to Pop Popcorn at Home (Hint: it’s so easy you don’t need a real “recipe”)

You’ve got options: here are a couple.

1) Go old school and use a pot on the stove. You need a heavy-bottomed pot (with a lid!) to heat evenly and avoid burning your popcorn. Pour enough oil to cover the bottom of the pot and warm it over medium-high heat. What type of oil? You have options here too. Popcorn starts popping at 180oC (356oF). Too hot, and you’ll burn your popcorn; but heat too slowly and the steam will escape from the tip of the kernels and they won’t actually pop.
Remember that oils have something called a “smoke point” – the temperature at which, when heated, they produce smoke. For most common oils, this is higher than 350oF, so you’re fine with any neutral oil such as canola, sunflower, avocado, grapeseed, or – our favorite for health reasons – olive oil. Olive oil has been shown to be stable at high temperatures. Stove-top popcorn is easy and quick, but requires attention. Stay close to your pot and adjust the heat as needed. If you’re concerned about GMOs, buy organic oil.
Add a couple of “test” kernels, cover the pot, and wait until they pop. Then add enough kernels to cover the bottom of the pot in an even layer. Cover the pot and remove from the heat for about 30 seconds. Return to heat and shake the pot gently as corn pops. Leave the lid open a crack to allow steam to escape; otherwise your popcorn will steam in the pot and won’t be as crisp.
Once popping slows to about 2 seconds between pops, remove from heat, open the lid away from your face, and pour into serving bowl. Sprinkle on any toppings right after popping, as the steam is still being released and the small amount of moisture will help the stick.

2) If you want a fun new kitchen gadget and don’t want to fire up the stove, another option is a collapsible silicone popcorn popper that you use in the microwave. You can put a little oil in the bottom (or not), add the kernels (capacity varies), and adjust the time based on your microwave’s power. It may take you a couple of tries to get the time just right. Don’t leave it in too long, or it will burn! There is no evidence that microwaving food is unsafe (as long as you use containers intended for microwaving, and are careful to avoid burns from steam). But, if you are not comfortable with it, go for option 1.

Topping suggestions (optional) – Just watch the salt.
• Brewer’s yeast
• Dried herbs
• Sprinkle of grated cheese (suggest a hard cheese like Parmesan)
• Salt (if not on a low-sodium diet)
What toppings do you like on popcorn? Share your faves on our Facebook group.

So, this Saturday night: cue up a movie on Netflix, fire up the stove with the biggest pan you can find (or the microwave), and enjoy a guilt-free, microbiome-friendly movie experience.