What Popcorn Can Teach Us About Eating Right

Food. Healthy. Diets. Eating. Cooking. Sustainable. Local. All big buzz words for 2010. I have dozens of blog posts ruminating in my head that cover all of these topics – attempts to clarify all of this Food Confusion and help people get back on track. But today, I am going to talk about popcorn.

popcorn175pxTwice yesterday, I encountered the tell-tale smell of microwave popcorn. And it got me thinking about how people are trying to eat healthier – but struggle with finding the time to prepare food from scratch. I’m particularly passionate about popcorn – love the stuff. When I make it, I prepare it on the stove in a pot with some oil – “old-fashioned” style. It takes me approximately 5-6 minutes. The only ingredients I use are: popcorn kernels, oil, and kosher salt.

Microwave popcorn, on the other hand, takes roughly 3 minutes to “cook.” It contains all kinds of processed ingredients including: Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Salt, Natural Flavors, Annatto For Coloring, Soy Lecithin and/or Palm Oil and Freshness Preserved With Tbhq and Citric Acid. (It’s pretty cool that you can read the nutrition labels on packages via Amazon.com). In 2007, they discovered a chemical in microwave popcorn that causes lung problems.

We certainly like things to be instantaneous! Even if it means saving us just a few minutes. It never ceases to make me laugh when I take pictures of my nieces and nephews on my digital camera and they immediately say, “Let me see it!” We are so spoiled by technology now that we often forget that it’s the things that take a little time that we usually savor the most in life.

Last summer, I made popcorn for my Healthcorps students who are in their early 20’s. They were drooling over it. You would have thought I made them a gourmet 5-course meal – because most of them had never had it before! It not only tastes much better but it’s MUCH cheaper and it’s made with “real” ingredients our bodies recognize and know how to digest.

We can keep buying “100-calorie packs” and trying to go that route which, clearly hasn’t worked well for us over the past 20 years. Or, we can face the fact that our bodies want to consume food grown naturally – not engineered in a laboratory. Mother Nature’s food. If we cut out the chemicals, we will notice a lot of positive changes in our health including our energy levels, our skin, our weight, our moods and so on. This is especially important for kids – chemicals in processed foods are linked to all kinds of health, weight, and behavioral problems in children. Michael Pollan just discussed how crucial it is to eat “real” foods with Oprah last week.

I realize that it’s not easy to eat completely chemical-free these days. All we can do is keep making small differences in our diet – take baby steps toward a “cleaner” way of eating. Since processed foods are everywhere, we need to take every chance we can to reach for “real” foods – and save the “instant meals” for road trips and weekday evenings when everyone is exhausted.

Preparing a meal from scratch doesn’t take as long as you’d think. A UCLA study found that those making meals from scratch spent almost the same amount of time preparing dinner than those making a meal from partially-prepared, “convenient” foods. While developing recipes for my cookbook, I discovered that making (gourmet) macaroni and cheese from scratch takes roughly the same amount of time as it does to prepare it from a box.

So, next time you’re looking for a snack – instead of pulling out the chips or packaged foods, pull out a bag of popcorn kernels.

One of my chef friends drizzles truffle oil over popcorn for a decadent snack. You can add all kinds of ingredients and spices: nutritional yeast, parmesan, cinammon sugar, or chili powder. This recipe yields a pretty big batch because I like to eat it the next day or put it in snack bags to take to work.

1/4 cup vegetable oil (I’m into grapeseed lately)
3/4 – 1 cup popcorn kernels (Organic, if possible)
Kosher salt to taste (Kosher or sea salt always trump table salt)

In a Dutch oven (or 8 quart pan), heat oil on medium to high heat. When it starts to shimmer (after a few minutes), add a popcorn kernel. When the oil starts to sizzle around the kernel, add the rest of the kernels. (I use a full cup in a Dutch oven which overflows a little when it’s fully popped.) Cover with tightly fitted lid.

Jiggle the pan just a little bit while the kernels start to heat up (you might need to use hot pads to hold the pan). When they all start to pop at once, jiggle the pan with more force so that the bottom pieces don’t burn. As soon as the popping sound starts to slow down, lower heat, jiggle for another minute or so and pull it off the heat. Salt and enjoy.

For more information on how chemicals in food can affect health, especially with regards to children, check out Robyn O’Brien’s new book, The Unhealthy Truth.


Lauren Slayton writes:

Great post Julie. I love you pointing out that some of our time-savers aren’t saving much time. It’s so pathetic that I have never made popcorn in a pot. You have inspired me. When I do make microwave popcorn (the slightly better no trans fats variety) I like salt and hazelnut oil. I will try your method…as soon as I find the time to get to the store :)


You mean it is possible to make popcorn not in the microwave?!? Just kidding. You are totally right, the home-popped stuff is far better. Microwave popcorn has a different, “thinner” texture, not enough bite. Plus as you say all those chemicals. I think the only thing people might consider a downside is having a pot to clean, but really is that such a big deal?

julie writes:

Oooh, hazelnut oil sounds wonderful, Lauren – keep me posted on your first batch!

You know, Michael, I almost mentioned having to clean the pot (which, admittedly is a bit annoying because of all of the oil) but my posts are so dang long, I deleted it – but you are correct that it’s really the only downside to homemade popcorn!!

Thanks for the comments!

Debbie Rosemont writes:

For some reason, I’ve always thought it would be hard to make popcorn on the stove, that it would take a special pot or equipment, or that it would take too much oil and “undo” any of the health benefit (I usually just air pop it, but while its crunchy, its pretty bland!).

Your directions sound so simple … I’m going to try it right now!

Thanks for the inspiriation and the good ideas Julie. Keep ’em coming!

Debbie Rosemont writes:

Success! (Note, its just minutes after my last comment). My daughter says “I like this better than microwave popcorn … it probably tastes better because it doesn’t have all the chemicals in it). She also says it taste more like movie popcorn.

I used peanut oil, white kernel popcorn, a “regular” large pot and some salt. It just took minutes.

How fun. Thanks again Julie. A healthy, easy, “kid approved” snack!

julie writes:

YEAH! Love hearing your success story and that your daughter liked it. Thanks so much for sharing!

Hilla Abel writes:

You are so right about this, Julie. It doesn’t take much longer *and* you can make it just the way you like it! Along the lines of cutting chemicals from one’s diet, I also wanted to add that buying organic kernals helps avoid genetically modified organisms (and pesticides of course), since a high percent of corn is GMO.

Sonya writes:

Funny that I am reading this post today. We are having home-made popcorn in my kindergarten classroom tomorrow for a special PJ and PIppi Longstocking day. How great that I can teach a mini-nutrition lesson to go along with our popcorn! Thanks for sharing your food wisdom.

pragmaticmom writes:

Love your blog. Thanks for all your helpful advice. I added to you to my blogroll at http://pragmaticmom.com. would love more advice on healthy snacks and meals for finicky kids. Pragmatic Mom

Becky writes:

I mentioned this on Facebook but will post it here too in case anyone missed it. I use my wok to make popcorn on the stove. The shape keeps the popped kernels off the heat, and it seasons the wok while it cooks. When I am done, I just wipe out any excess oil with a paper towel, and voilĂ !

julie writes:

Awesome comments – thanks for sharing such great info!

Tony writes:

I can’t remember the last time I made microwave popcorn…. (must be a long time since I don’t own a microwave).
Popcorn is one of my favorite snacks… not expensive, quick and tasty!
Actually I use olive oil, which might seem weird, but it gives the popcorn a nice flavor that I prefer over that done with other kinds of oils so I don’t usually add salt… Although I have been known to use all sorts of other spices on occasion, paprika, black pepper, garlic, white pepper, etc.
I have a tall thin bottomed pot that I use almost exclusively for popcorn, gives a nice even heat that pops everything.
Becky- how do you keep the kernels from popping out of the wok…? :)

Lea writes:

Thanks Julie!
Those fake tasting, processed microwave popcorns must be banned!! I love making popcorn in a pot. I use a mister and spray olive oil or canola oil in the pot (to cut some calories) and put 1/4 cup kernels with some chili powder and garlic powder. It’s delicious! When I want air popped popcorn, (and really don’t feel like cleaning the pot), I put 1/4 cup kernels in a small paper lunch bag in the microwave for 2-3 minutes. It air pops the popcorn to perfection. I eat it plain or spray some smart balance spray on it. The best 150 calories ever! Best eaten while watching Glee!!


Here’s to homemade popcorn. We’ve been making it for years. A recent discovery/addition — truffle salt. Oh my.

Amy writes:

You can cover the bottom of a plain brown paper lunch bag with pop corn kernels, fold it down a few times, and put in the microwave for about 4 minutes (depending on the power of your particular microwave oven). The kernels will pop wonderfully! No need to add oil. The popcorn is done when there is a few seconds between the pops. Try it – it’s an easy and cheap way to have air popped corn. And hold on to the bag. You can re-use it several times. Enjoy!

Julie Hearne writes:


Love your website and blogs and you make me want to make popcorn!
The real kind and your right it is easy for some but it’s great that you tell everyone that they can do it! I will continue reading your great artIcles!
Best, Julie

Jackie Topol writes:

Homemade popcorn is the best! I made some the other night w/ a dash of cayenne, chili powder, ground cumin, sea salt, and nutritional yeast. YUMMM

jackie beer walby writes:

i remember having the popcorn conversation with you years ago when we met thru carin and I still agree! i did find an Orvil Redenbacker (sp?) maker that comes with a bowl, lid, special base, and little reusable cardboard liners that go in the bowl and hold the oil. you can use like 1/4 of the oil as you use on the stove and put it in the microwave for about 2.5 mins and you have fresh, real, stove top-flavored popcorn out of the microwave with no crazy ingredients. it is AWESOME. and since i eat popcorn almost every day it is oh so handy. (and I ALWAYS use parmesan and sea salt) YAY POPCORN!


[…] prefer to eat them without antifoaming agents and sodium acid pyrophosphate. As I mentioned in my popcorn post, making something from scratch may take a little longer but tastes infinitely better and will be […]

Dayton writes:

The way you use the word “chemical” makes me chuckle. Water is a chemical. Food produced to the highest organic standards is composed entirely of chemicals. It’s not merely difficult to “eat chemical-free”, it’s literally impossible. If you’re serious about your mission to educate about nutrition, you need to think about what you really mean when you say “chemicals”, and use those correct terms instead.

julie writes:

Hello Dayton – Thanks for your astute post. True, almost everything in nature is technically a chemical – gas, liquid, and anything else made of matter. However, in almost any post regarding my use of the word, “chemicals,” I do think I make it clear that I am referring to “processed ingredients” and “man-made substance.” I try to always use it in context (even in my Twitter posts, which is not easy). In the 15 years that I’ve been teaching, nobody has been confused about my use of the word “chemicals” thus far. But thank you for pointing out that I should clarify my use of it in future writings and presentations.

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