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Popcorn primer.

Popcorn Primer

Popcorn. What child can bear to wait until the last kernel explodes inside the pot or bulging bubble? What adult can smell that familiear aroma without expecting "coming attractions" to appear on a giant screen?

It's no surprise that popcorn is now a $454 million business, up 26 percent in 1987. Few snack foods are as much fun to prepare. Fewer still are recommended by health authorities.

That's right. Recommended. The National Cancer Institute lists popcorn as "a high-fiber food to choose more often." The American Heart Association calls it an "okay food" that's "low in saturated fat and fairly low in calories."

Yet the popcorn that nutritionists recommend is not the same popcorn that most people eat. NCI, for example, specifically recommends air- (not oil-) popped popcorn, which is virtually fat-free and has only 90 calories in a 3-cup serving.

Yet it's the microwave segment of the market that's really popping. Already accounting for two-thirds of the popcorn market, microwave popcorn sales grew 55 percent in the last year. And whether Orville Redenbacher, Betty Crocker, or Paul Newman is the chef, low-fat microwaveable kernels are hard to find.


There's plenty of fat in the old-fashioned Jiffy Pop-style popcorns that you continuously shake over low heat in "very fast circular and back and forth motions." Roughly 45 percent of their calories come from added grease.

But microwaveable popcorns are even worse. They average 56 percent fat. The most popular microwave brand, Orville Redenbacher's, has a line ranging from 49 to 60 percent fat. Planters packs 64, and Jolly Time hits 76 percent.

Only Weight Watchers is admirably low in fat. That's because it contains nothing but popcorn, an excellent choice nutrition-wise, but far more expensive than buying a bag of plain popcorn and throwing a handful of kernels in a microwave-safe plastic container. (Paper bags appear to work as well, but metal impurities in the paper can ignite and cause a fire.)

Most brands have so much grease, you might as well be eating potato chips, which average 60 percent of their calories from fat. The other prominent snack food, pretzels, are usually low in fat (but high in salt).


Some manufacturers add insult to injury by using saturated fats. Jiffy Pop, Newman's Own, Microburst, and PopExpress use butter, palm oil, or coconut oil.

Despite their flaws, only one supermarket brand--Microburst--is as bad as movie-theater popcorn. An informal survey of Washington, D.C.-area cinemas revealed that all use coconut oil. That's because it doesn't smoke at high temperatures, allowing merchants to keep the oil hot until the movie is about to end. Then they quickly pop the corn just as one crowd emerges and another enters the theater.


Don't be misled by popcorn names. "Butter flavor" popcorn usually isn't made with butter, which is just as well for your arteries.

The usual alternative is "natural flavor," which should be called "non-butter flavor," because the major difference is the absence of butter flavoring. Even more misleading, Planter's and Pop-Secret's labels say "natural" instead of "natural flavoring," implying that the product contains no artificial ingredients. In fact, both contain the preservative TBHQ (tert-butylhydroquinone), which is as artificial as ingredients get.

What's more, all "natural flavor" popcorns still contain fat and salt. In fact, Orville Redenbacher--who is really the giant Hunt-Wesson company in disguise--adds even more fat to his "natural" than to his "butter-flavor" version. Let's face it: Truly natural flavored popcorn is ordinary, unadorned popcorn--no fat, salt, TBHQ, or anything else added.

Speaking of flavors, perhaps the strongest taste in some brands is the added salt. Companies such as Planters and Jiffy Pop have a heavy hand on the salt shaker. Both brands supply over 500 mg of sodium in a 3-cup serving, while Newman's Own, Jolly Time, and Deli Express have less than 200. (Deli Express keeps the sodium down by using Lite Salt, a mixture of sodium and potassium chloride.) Clearly, if one company can add less salt, so can others.


Popcorn isn't brimming with nutrients. The only ones worth mentioning are magnesium (about 6 percent of the USRDA in a 3-cup serving) and iron (about 3 percent). Neither meets the 10 percent minimum required for a food to be a "good" source of a nutrient.

But popcorn is an excellent source of much-needed fiber. A 3-cup serving supplies about 4 grams of fiber. The average American eats only 10 grams of fiber a day, but should be eating 20 to 30, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The trick is to find flavorings--other than fat and salt--if you don't like the taste of plain air-popped corn (many people do). Try misting lightly with water from a spray bottle. Then sprinkle with:

* Molly McButter or Butter Buds

* garlic powder

* chili powder

* parmesan cheese

* dried dill

If you insist on buying a pre-flavored popcorn, Orville Redenbacher's butter flavor and Deli Express are the "best." They have the least amount of fat of the brands made without saturated fats, and they're not high in sodium.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Liebman, Bonnie
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Sep 1, 1988
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