Quinn on Nutrition: Feasting on popcorn trivia

The Monterey County HeraldJuly 11, 2014 

So my sis-in-law and I are standing in line for popcorn at the movie.

"What size do you want?" asks the young man behind the counter.

"I'll have a small," says Molly. "With butter."

"I'll have a medium," says me, before I realize that medium - in movie theater language - means, "Oh, my gosh that's big."

"Without butter," I add virtuously.

So how many calories did we devour while rocking to the Jersey Boys? According to the Popcorn Board, www.popcorn.org , 1 cup of oil-popped popcorn (like we get at the movies) has about 55 calories. And I'm sure I gulped down close to 300 calories worth.

"Lightly" buttered popcorn contains about 133 calories per cup. Which is why a small bag is a great idea.

How did popcorn at the movies get started? A story is told about a banker in Oklahoma who lost his fortune. So he bought a popcorn machine and started a business in a store near a movie theater. The rest, as they say, is popcorn history.

Here are some other facts from the Popcorn Board about my favorite movie snack:

Popcorn has been around for more than 4,000 years. The oldest ears of popcorn on record were discovered in a bat cave in New Mexico in 1948 and 1950.

The average American eats 51 quarts (almost 13 gallons) of popcorn each year, hopefully not all at the same movie.

Popcorn is a whole grain. That means we eat the entire grain kernel - bran, germ and endosperm (the fluffy white part). In fact, 3 cups of popped popcorn qualifies as a serving of a whole grain. Health benefits are associated with at least 3 servings of whole grains each day.

Not all corn "pops." Popcorn is a particular type of maize (corn) with a hull just the right thickness to burst open when it gets hot, says the Popcorn Board.

Water makes popcorn pop. Within each kernel is a small drop of water enclosed by a small circle of starch. When heated, the water droplet expands and builds pressure, causing the corn starch to burst out of its hull. As it explodes, steam is released, blowing up the starch to 40 or 50 times its original size.

And now I know why movie theater popcorn is so crisp. Those loose lids on the big poppers allow steam to escape as the corn pops so it does not get soggy. And this of course also shoots that enticing aroma into the air that causes cash to disappear from the wallet.

And there we have it. Fluffy whole grains of corn that energize the senses and emanate some strange sort of comfort during long movies.

Someone has estimated how many popped kernels it would take to make a trail of popcorn from New York City to Los Angeles. Are you kidding? They'd never get past the movie houses.

(Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Email her at bquinn@chomp.org .)

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