It was the best of snacks, it was the worst of snacks
How popcorn became the snack giant of the 20th century, even though it became the worst thing for us to eat.
Popcorn. Even the name is fun to say, popcorn. The minute you think of eating a bowl of hot popcorn a few things instantly come to mind — butter for one, movie night, snack, summer carnivals and unfortunately, topping the list in marketing surveys over the last 15 years — microwave.
A brief history
The history of popcorn eaten as a snack in the US is vague prior to the 1800’s. There are a number of myths surrounding popcorn as part of the pilgrim’s Thanksgiving dinner, which have been debunked, according to the History Channel as the type of corn the the settlers at Plymouth grew was of the “Northern Flint variety, with delicate kernels that are unsuitable for popping.”
Still, archeologists have found traces of popcorn in 1,000-year-old Peruvian tombs, it wasn’t until French explorers documented that the Iroquois Indians popped “tough corn kernels in pottery jars filled with heated sand.” At that time the Iroquois nation spread throughout the Great Lakes region, so it’s likely that settlers to upstate New York, Vermont and Quebec were the earliest North American popcorn makers.
Modern popcorn consumption didn’t really kick off until the 1890s, after a Chicago entrepreneur named Charles Cretors built the first popcorn-popping machine. His horse-drawn popcorn carts became a staple at town fairs, on street corners, carnivals and circuses and then very quickly home popcorn consumption spread, until today, where in America alone we eat about a million pounds of un-popped popcorn annually.
Popcorn made prior to the evolution of the popular bagged microwave snack which took over in the 1980’s, was cooked with butter and salt typically, then agitated in a closed container with a single heat source until all the kernels popped. In Cretors’ machines, steam heated the pan, and in the home people popped their corn on their gas and electric ranges. There was no need for additives or complicated cooking practices, until the introduction of the microwave oven.
When did popcorn stop being a healthy snack?
As far as snacks go, popped corn is a pretty healthy and inexpensive one, when it’s prepared authentically. In addition to being high in fiber, popcorn also contains phenolic acids, a type of antioxidant. Popcorn is an actual whole grain, and has a low glycemic index (GI), meaning that it may help maintain blood sugar levels more easily and avoid the fluctuations associated with foods high in GI, reducing the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension in humans.
Because of the low food cost of popcorn, it became a staple concession at the movies in the 1940’s, and to keep costs low, chemicals, harsh oils and additives took the place of the simple ingredients of home-cooked corn in the 1970’s and as a result, became a very different popcorn, full of saturated fats, dyes and high volumes of sodium. A tub of movie theater popcorn can contain up to 1,090 calories and 2,650 milligrams of sodium, which is off the charts as the recommended allowance for an entire day is 2300mg.
It’s when the preparation of the whole grain corn introduces additives and chemicals, oils and heavy salts that the healthy snack, that’s been around for hundreds, even thousands of years, becomes harmful and in the case of microwave popcorn in the 1980’s, cancerous.
One such chemical, diacetyl, has been linked to a disease called popcorn lung, which causes shortness of breath and wheezing. Diacetyl, which gives some microwave popcorn its buttery taste, is found in cheese, butter, yogurt and wine, and it’s not harmful if swallowed; the danger comes when it is inhaled in large amounts, as was with bagged popcorn.
And did people “inhale” it. Bagged popcorn sales skyrocketed throughout the 80’s and 90’s, with manufacturers like Pillsbury and the original patented company, General Mills profiting in the hundreds of millions. But all were outpaced by Orville Redenbacher, who was credited for “perfecting” bagged microwave popcorn and corn-ering the market — no pun intended.
Additionally, chemicals like perfluoroalkyls, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which are used to line the popcorn bags to prevent grease from soaking the bag wet, were present. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) further found these carcinogens cause a host of health nightmares for the endocrine system, causing thyroid issues, bladder cancer and much more.
By 2007, after countless lawsuits that almost toppled Orville Redenbacher and other microwave popcorn manufacturers, the industry announced they would remove diacetyl from all their products, and vowed to“clean up their act.”
As a result, the microwaved popcorn of today is much healthier. Even though the manufactures did indeed remove many additives, and introduce all natural products, the microwave popcorn industry never fully recovered from their record-breaking profits they saw in the 80’s and 90’s.
Today, people are returning to organic, home-grown and more natural methods of cooking as a knee-jerk reaction to the over-processed and loosely regulated food industry of the 1970’s and 80’s and once again firing up the traditional cook top methods used by Cretors or opting for the optimal healthy option of using air poppers.
Lynda Young is a health and science writer and blogger.
Credits: The Atlantic, Food NDTV, Serious Eats, FDA.gov, WebMD, Cretors.com, History.com