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Does Popcorn Make You Fat?



What is popcorn?

Popcorn (popcorn or popcorn) are foods that typically fall into the snack category.

Being part of the third fundamental group of foods (cereals, potatoes and derivatives), popcorn is nothing more than the seeds of a particular type of corn: Genus Zea specie mays and subspecies everta. Assieme ad altre cinque (dent corn, flint corn, pod corn, flour corn e sweet corn), Z. m. everta it is one of the most cultivated subspecies of corn in the world. Use: starting from the 20th century, in Italy, this type of cereal has been used by the Po Valley “arzdore” as food for laying hens by virtue of its natural coloring capabilities (carotenoids – provitamin A).

Do they make you fat?

Interesting question. However, even in this case the answer is “it depends”. Usually, when we talk about food, it is always “the dose that makes the poison”; popcorn is no exception. On the other hand, there are several considerations to make and the reasoning requires knowing at least the nutritional composition of the food. Keep in mind that popcorn is a low-water, high-energy-density food containing predominantly complex carbohydrates; however, almost everyone uses adding seasoning fats to cook them. Furthermore, today several types of enriched popcorn are widespread, for example with sugar, melted butter, cocoa, etc.

For now, readers will have to be satisfied with this statement: “Popcorn “could” make you fat. It depends above all on the portion, the frequency of consumption and the subjective metabolic state.” Let's delve deeper into the topic.

Historical notes on popcorn

The first findings indicating the consumption of popcorn date back to 9000 years ago, in Mexico.

However, the food as we know it today (albeit under the name “Pearls or Nonpareil”) did not arise until the 19th century, on the US East Coast. The term “popped corn” was coined only in the middle of the same century, by John Russell Bartlett. The popcorn production machine did not take long to make its appearance and was put on the market as early as 1890. This food, due to its very low cost, became popular during the great depression of the first half of the 20th century. Towards the end of the second half of the 20th century they were packaged and marketed for large-scale distribution. As many as 6 cities in the USA claim the title of Popcorn Capital; however it is not possible to establish with certainty what it really is.

Nutritional properties

Nutritional characteristics of popcorn

Popcorn is naturally rich in starch (78 g/100 g) and dietary fiber (15 g/100 g); proteins are contained in a fair quantity (12 g/100 g) while water is lacking (15-20 g/100 g). The general calorie intake is quite high (378 kcal/100 g). The concentration of iron is good (2.7 g/100 g) and the concentration of vitamin B1 (0.2 mg/100 g) and B2 (0.3 mg/100 g) is fair. The quantity of carotenoids (provitamin A) is also not negligible.

Naturally, popcorn contains very little fat, simple sugars and sodium. These characteristics make them suitable for use as a snack or snack. However, it should be noted that if the considerable energy density and the more than significant glycemic load should preclude its (significant) use in the diet of the obese, type 2 diabetic and hypertriglyceridemic. The restriction is even greater if the popcorn is enriched with sugar, syrups, honey, toppings, etc.

Popcorn cooked with large portions of seasoning fats should also be avoided in the overweight diet; furthermore, those enriched or prepared with clarified butter, due to the presence of cholesterol and saturated fats, are to be excluded in the nutritional regime for hypercholesterolemia.

In 1990 the “Center for Science in the Public Interest” published a study carried out by interviewing the major retail popcorn producers, i.e. the fast restaurant operators of cinemas. It emerged that most of them used coconut oil, very rich in saturated fats (although medium chain, therefore more easily digestible), and further seasoned them with margarine or melted butter (equally rich in saturated or hydrogenated fats and, in the case of butter, cholesterol). In the same work it was underlined that an average portion of buttered cinema popcorn “contains more fat than a breakfast of bacon and eggs, a Big Mac with french fries, or a dinner of mixed steaks”. The problem, less widespread in Italy, continues in the USA where a small portion of popcorn contains on average 29 g of saturated fat (the equivalent of a daily reference dose for about a day and a half). However, studies conducted by the “Motion Picture Association of America” ​​have shown that the average person only goes to the cinema six times a year and what they eat on that occasion is not a relevant factor. This conclusion, however, seems hasty and not sufficiently critical. In fact, it uses the average attendance value of multiplexes as if it were a definitive figure; in the most important urban centers this, from six per year, can increase up to thirty, forty or even fifty (once a week). Furthermore, those who usually consume junk foods (enriched popcorn certainly falls into this category) certainly do not do so only on this occasion; this makes “movie” popcorn extremely harmful to nutritional balance and should therefore be avoided (NOT replaced by other junk foods). Salted popcorn should also be avoided in the diet of sodium-sensitive hypertensive individuals. The average portion of “plain” popcorn used as a snack is approximately 20-40 g (75-150 kcal).

It could therefore be said that seasoned popcorn is a food that can easily make you gain weight, especially if those who consume it are sedentary people with poor insulin sensitivity. Natural ones, however, in the right quantities, can also be considered good quality foods.

Further information: how is popcorn formed?

We have all asked ourselves at least once in our lives “How does the magic of popcorn happen?”. The mechanism is quite particular but not at all complex. Let's get into it.

The seeds of popcorn corn varieties are small in size. Externally they have a fibrous pericarp, while inside they contain a hard starchy, dehydrated endosperm, with a maximum humidity of 14-20%; albeit marginally, the oily germ is also present inside.

Subjected to heating (temperature of 180 °C, better in corn oil which is an excellent thermal conductor), being “hermetically” sealed inside the pericarp, the water and fats expand (with consequent increase in pressure up to approximately 9.3 bar) causing the casing to burst. In this way the starch and proteins (which act as a “scaffold”) escape but, cooling instantly, they stabilize giving rise to an irregular and characteristic shape that resembles a “little white flower”. The texture is crunchy and brittle, not too tender and spongy (characteristics of poor quality popcorn). Use: the “tight” closure of the seeds is the main characteristic of popcorn corn varieties; damaged kernels, no longer hermetically sealed, cannot make popcorn.

Other Risks

Other health risks related to popcorn consumption

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends not serving popcorn to children under four years old due to the risk of choking.

Microwave popcorn is designed to be cooked with various flavoring agents and seasonings. One of these (now abandoned by most manufacturers) is “artificial butter” or diacetyl. Previously this additive was closely monitored due to suspicions that it could cause respiratory diseases in people who inhale it (the famous case of workers in a microwave popcorn factory, also known as “popcorn lung”).

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