Q: Chuck, there are obvious differences between the popcorn I pop in my air popper at home and those super-buttery types at the movie theaters. Can you discuss some of the differences? — A Popcorn Fan in Philadelphia
A: Before I discuss movie popcorn in my next column, let me here highlight the positive nutritional aspects of popcorn.
The Popcorn Board, "a non-profit check-off organization funded by U.S. popcorn processors to raise awareness of popcorn as a versatile, whole-grain snack," was being truthful when it reported:
"—Air-popped popcorn has only 31 calories per cup; oil-popped popcorn has only 55 calories per cup.
"—When lightly buttered, popcorn contains about 133 calories per cup.
"—Popcorn is a whole grain, making it a good-for-you food.
"—Popcorn provides energy-producing complex carbohydrates.
"—Popcorn contains fiber, providing roughage the body needs in the daily diet.
"—Popcorn is naturally low in fat and calories.
"—Popcorn has no artificial additives or preservatives, and is sugar-free.
"—Popcorn is ideal for between meal snacking since it satisfies and doesn't spoil the appetite.
"—3 cups of popcorn equal one serving from the grain group."
Popcorn is really a perfect snack, because it's a whole-grain food, low in calories and high in fiber, antioxidants and volume, filling you up so you can munch on it without worrying about overeating. But remember that the nutritional aspects above are only for air-popped popcorn, not the buttery versions high in saturated fats, sodium and other oils.
Of course, most people love the convenience and taste of microwave popcorn. But WebMD is right on when it says consumers need to check out the nutrition labels on microwave popcorn, where you'll often notice "a big jump in fat and calories." For example, just one-third of a bag of Orville Redenbacher's "movie theater" microwave popcorn (about 4 cups after it's popped) has 170 calories and 12 grams of fat, including 2.5 grams of saturated fat.
Here are my two biggest words of caution about microwave popcorn:
First, remember that government regulations allow nutrition labels to say "no trans fats" when there is really up to a gram of them in the product. So how do you know? If the ingredients include "partially hydrogenated oil," you can bet it contains some trans fat.
The second hazard about microwave popcorn is that scientific studies conducted at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere have proved that diacetyl, a chemical used to create the buttery smell and flavor in microwave popcorn — as well as margarine, baked goods, candy and even pet food — is linked to respiratory problems and "may worsen the effects of an abnormal brain protein that's been linked to Alzheimer's disease," according to a report from CBS News.
To add injury to insult, though most of the microwave popcorn producers replaced the diacetyl over the past few years, experts Kathleen Kreiss and Nancy Sahakian from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and Daniel Morgan with the Respiratory Toxicology Group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences have proved that the alternative ingredients are just as harmful.
And as if that weren't enough, there is also a chemical that is used in the lining of many of the popcorn bags called perfluorooctanoic acid, which AARP's website reports "is also used to make Teflon and other stain- and stick-resistant materials, including pizza boxes." PFOA has been shown to cause liver, pancreatic and testicular cancers in animals and may be linked to infertility in women, according to a study at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, explained how PFOA gets into the human bloodstream by vaporizing and migrating onto the popcorn during microwaving. She told Prevention magazine, in an article titled "7 Foods That Should Never Cross Your Lips," "They stay in your body for years and accumulate there."
That is why Women's Health recommends this microwave alternative: "Add 1 1/2 heaping tablespoons of kernels to a tempered-glass microwave-safe bowl with a vented lid. Cook on High for 2 to 3 minutes. The bowl will be hot, so use oven mitts. Makes about 3 cups (of) popped popcorn."
And if you want to go traditional and use the stove top: "Add a scant 2 teaspoons of peanut or canola oil to a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add 1 1/2 heaping tablespoons of kernels. Replace lid and gently shake pot to heat evenly. When popping slows after 2 to 3 minutes, turn off heat. Wait 30 seconds before removing lid to allow kernels to finish popping. Makes about 3 cups."
And if you think air-popped popcorn is a little too bland for your taste buds, then consider flaring it up with a few relatively healthy flavorings that still keep the calories down. There are a host of options on the Internet, including Women's Health's recipes for rosemary Parmesan popcorn, pina colada popcorn, curry chipotle popcorn, lemon dill popcorn, sugar 'n' spice popcorn and cran-chocolate popcorn.
Next week, I will discuss a scientific study conducted on theater popcorn around the nation. You might be surprised at the results!
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.