Healthy benefits of popcorn popping its popularity among eaters, Michigan growers

With the growing ‘pop’ularity of the snack, Michiganders are producing unique varieties in an effort to capitalize on the craze.

Popcorn from Doyle’s Farm of Frankenmuth. Photo courtesy of Julie Darnton.

Popcorn from Doyle’s Farm of Frankenmuth. Photo courtesy of Julie Darnton.

Whether you’re attending a sporting event, catching a movie or even at the office, there’s no mistaking the smell of one of America’s favorite foods: popcorn. In recent years, this treat has become more than just something people passively munch on. Originally appearing on the scene as a novel movie theater snack in the 1930s and during WWll when money, not to mention sugar rations, were tight, popcorn has been one of America’s favorite foods for almost 85 years.

With the introduction of microwave popcorn in 1983, the snack came out of concession stands and into America’s kitchens. In recent years, however, popcorn has become the focus of several healthy snack studies, and many Americans have begun buying kernels to pop outside the microwave for a nutritious bite. But how healthy is it exactly? And what is the difference between the popcorn kernels for sale and other corn varieties?

Popcorn is a variety of corn grown just for popping. Its hull, the part of the kernel that is attached it to the cob, is just thick enough to allow the kernel to heat up while cooking without popping too soon and just thin enough to allow it to burst into a full kernel at the correct time, exposing all of the starch or endosperm, which is the white, fluffy part of the popcorn. Available as seeds in yellow, white, red, blue, black and multicolored (sometimes called “Indian”) varieties, yellow and white popcorn are currently the only two types commercially grown.

Popcorn is a whole grain food meaning that in its entirety, it contains the endosperm, bran and germ parts of its plant while in the field and on the shelf. Many grains of its kind have the bran and germ taken out, which is how we have “refined” white flour and other products today. Unfortunately, with the bran and germ goes much of the nutritional value, at least 17 key nutrients, according to the Whole Grain Council. However, because popcorn keeps this three-part structure, all contained within its kernel, it becomes a great source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Recent research from the University of Scranton suggests popcorn contains a high level of polyphenols, a type of antioxidant proven to help prevent cancer. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research even recommends snacking on popcorn as a sugar-free, healthy way to help quit smoking. And, in addition to health effects, popcorn only costs about 16 cents per serving (a serving is a cup of un-popped corn), according to a few  culinary websites.

It is important to note popcorn is farmed both commercially and recreationally and unlike other goods such as coffee, tea and cocoa that are mostly grown outside of the United States, most of the world’s popcorn is grown right here in America. In fact, October was proclaimed National Popcorn Poppin’ Month in 1999. 

Though there are claims Michigan is one of the big hitters in the commercial popcorn growing arena, local farms growing unique varieties are few in number throughout the state (research indicates around four farms produce popcorn for local sale). Some Michiganders have enjoyed growing varieties of their choosing in recent years for personal and local sale uses. Heath Ross, a cash crop farmer in the Saginaw/Bay-City area, says his family has liked their experience growing the crop as a hobby.

“We just do it for fun,” Ross says. “Last year we planted Mini Indian popcorn. This year we did about an acre of the large kernel, movie theater type.” 

According to Bur Oaks Farm of Ann Arbor, their red kernel popcorn variety is unusual and enjoyed in part because of its tenderness and flavor. The site’s online store even states that buyers are often attracted to its “rich red color.” Bur Oaks Farm has been producing white and red varieties of popcorn for 14 years, with most of its product being sold to distributors that eventually place it in retail stores throughout Michigan and a few other select states, according to Tom Bloomer, a representative of the farm.

With Americans consuming 16 billion quarts of popped popcorn a year, it’s easy to see that this snack food is an important, and potentially healthy, part of U.S. diets. While accessories like butter and salt reduce some of the health benefits of popcorn, the future looks bright for the development and research involved in exposing popcorn as the healthy snack it can be.

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