Popcorn is a great snack! Popcorn is a wholesome, nutritious, whole grain food. At least it starts out that way. Sales in pounds have been in the neighborhood of one billion per year for the last couple of decades, meaning plenty of people are eating plenty of popcorn. In the US, over 200 cups of popped corn is consumed, on average, for each and every one of us, every year. If that was just straight, air-popped corn it would amount to around 6,000 healthy calories per person. Megan and I went out into the market aisles to see what sort of popcorn was available. Little did we know that we would spend most of our time doing math to see what healthy or unhealthy choices were available.
For pre-popped popcorn, the nutrition labels had the serving size listed in grams and cups. With amounts usually 28 grams which can range from 3/4 of a cup for caramel corn to 3+3/4 cups for Skinny Pop.
The variety of serving size and the variation in the grams to cup ratio makes for some very challenging math when trying to compare products in the chip/popcorn aisle.
A bag of Chester’s popcorn sells for $3 and proclaims that it has 7 servings per bag. Amazingly, the cheddar cheese variety list a serving size as 3 cups while the butter flavored variety list a serving a 2+1/2 cups. The cheddar lists the serving weight as 28 grams, while the butter has it as one ounce! Despite this, each claims to have 7 servings per bag, although both appeared to be the same size to us. So, let’s eat the whole bag! Megan will eat the cheddar kind and I will eat the fake butter stuff. We assume the 7 servings per bag. Megan gets 1,050 calories, 63 grams of fat, 21 grams of fiber, 21 grams of protein, and 1.68 grams of sodium. I consume 1,120 calories, 70 grams of fat, 21 grams of fiber, 14 grams of protein, and 1.47 grams of sodium. Butter is fattier, cheese is saltier. Is that an attempt to meet customer taste expectations? No actual popcorn was harmed during this experiment!
Microwave popcorn is extremely popular. Remember the news stories about plant workers having severe respiratory problems from inhaling the fake butter chemical? That was diacetyl, an organic compound with a buttery taste and aroma. Seems plant workers inhaled the stuff and started showing up with a condition called bronchiolitis obliterans which is the inflammation and destruction of the bronchioles resulting in scarring, narrowing and loss of pulmonary function. According to OSHA this loss of function is NOT reversible and some of these workers ended up on lung transplant waiting lists.
The causative connection was established by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 2003. Now we are told that these plants use proper ventilation and provide workers with proper personal protective equipment. In 2012, Dr. Robert Vince of the University of Minnesota Center for Drug Design found that diacetyl also had some troubling neurological effects. Risky business, indeed, although, to be fair, diacetyl is also found in real butter.
The nutrition info on microwave popcorn is just as confusing as popped corn labels, with a serving size usually 33 grams, but again yielding different cupful amounts, with more math needed to determine meaningful data for comparison. There are various iterations of 94% fat-free and these are the closest thing to “real” popcorn at about 25 calories per cup.
Adding butter flavor (diacetyl is unidentified within the “flavoring”) and fats can bring the calorie count as high as 40 per cup. The sodium content is again higher with cheesy kinds and can range from 80 to over 100mg per cup. Added fat is the big calorie boost to watch for on these products.
Finally, I checked actual movie popcorn. Harkin’s Theatres lists their medium as containing popcorn, salt, and canola oil, and comes in at 500 calories, with 32 grams of fat and 720mg of sodium. I was told that was with the standard “buttering,” not “layered butter” as many customers request. So that’s my calories for lunch! If you add more salt, you are quickly over a gram in that bag. By the way, Junior Mints are about 10 calories each. Popcorn and movie theaters began their love affair during the depression when vendors would sell nickel bags just outside the movie house. If you were to eat an entire extra large popcorn at the movies, you would get 1120 calories, 72 grams of fat, 1.6 grams of sodium. and a belly ache!
After this popcorn investigation, I’m looking into an air popper. I can make my own 30 calorie per cup snack and flavor it in a wild variety of ways, from tame to wicked.
There is a popcorn organization and their web site is quite fun to visit and is packed with info, tips, recipes, and popping videos.