“Based on fiber, whole grains and antioxidant levels, popcorn is the king of snack foods,” said Joe Vinson, PhD, professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton.
Popcorn contains only about 4 percent water on average, while polyphenol levels are diluted in the liquid of fruits and vegetables, which are 90 percent water. But Vinson is quick to point out that fruits and vegetables contain essential vitamins and other nutrients not available in the popped kernels.
The most antioxidants and fiber are actually concentrated in the hulls of the popcorn—the part that tends to get caught in people’s teeth. “They are nutritional gold nuggets,” Vinson told Science Daily.
Despite all these beacons of praise for the popular movie theater treat, Vinson encourages people to enjoy popcorn with caution—don’t overdose on oil, salt, butter or the fake butter found at most concession stands. He also warns that this typically low-calorie snack is often served loaded with fat and calories in various “kettle corn” recipes.
“Air-popped popcorn has the lowest number of calories, of course,” Vinson said—about 31 calories per cup without butter, according to popcorn.org. “Microwave popcorn has twice as many calories as air-popped, and if you pop your own with oil, this has twice as many calories as air-popped popcorn. About 43 percent of microwave popcorn is fat, compared to 28 percent if you pop the corn in oil yourself.”
Native Americans are no stranger to popped maize—the Aztecs reportedly used strands of popcorn for ceremonial headdresses, necklaces and ornaments on statues of their gods, states popcorn.org’s Encyclopedia Popcornica, which Tufts University links to on its School of Nutrition Science and Policy website.
In another ceremonial practice, “popcorn was cultivated by the Inca and used to cover or decorate bodies for burial,” says Dale Carson (Abenaki), Indian Country Today Media Network’s Native food expert.
A recent study supports the theories that Indigenous peoples of South America were among the first to make popcorn. Archaeologists recently unearthed a number of corn samples from a pair of Peruvian excavation sites, reported Smithsonian Magazine. The maize samples indicate that ancient Peruvians prepared and ate corn in numerous ways, including as popcorn. The corncobs, husks, stalks and popcorn evidence found at two mound sites in arid northern Peru date back 6,700 to 3,000 years ago, states the Smithsonian’s Newsroom. The findings were published in January 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, co-authored by Dolores Piperno, curator of New World archaeology at the Museum of Natural History.
Still, many tribes have their own stories about the origins of popcorn, such as the Wampanoag related to the so-called first Thanksgiving. “Chief Massasoit’s brother, Quadequina, attended the feast. At one point, he disappeared into the woods and returned with a bushel of popped corn. The European colonists were a bit startled never having seen such an unusual food,” Carson says.
Many tribes are also credited with devising their own unique popcorn recipes that have become popular, modern-day ballpark snacks and holiday desserts. “The Iroquois are credited with elaborating on this ‘popcorn’ by pouring hot maple syrup over it,” Carson says. “Legend says that a man who tasted this treat told his friends it was ‘crackerjack.'”
Carson herself, the author of three Native cookbooks, believes popcorn was probably discovered by accident. “A stray kernel may have fallen into some hot bear fat or fish oil,” she says.