Popcorn may not be what comes to mind when most folks think of healthy food, but I've found a renewed love for the crunchy snack in recent years. Some time ago a friend who specialized in integrative medicine suggested that I try giving up gluten in an attempt to reduce inflammation. I was suffering from chronic back pain and, though I was skeptical of the gluten-free fad, I was desperate enough to try anything. For six weeks I diligently read labels (wheat is hidden in more foods than you'd think) and experimented with gluten-free baking and substitute products.
While I did notice a slight reduction of joint stiffness, I became increasingly uneasy with many of the swaps I was making in the name of going 'gluten-free.' Swapping out fiber and protein-rich whole wheat for expensive rice and cornstarch-based substitutes seemed inherently wrong and I didn't feel like the packaged products I was turning to were actually benefiting my health. At some point I decided to focus less on avoiding foods and instead tried to focus on what is good for me – specifically foods that were as close to their original state as possible with minimal alterations. Wheat wasn't my problem – it was all the sneaky ways that heavily processed products were sneaking into my diet.
It was during this time that I rediscovered popcorn to be the practically perfect snack food that it is. Not the super-salty, radioactive orange microwave or movie theater popcorn, but the kind you pop yourself in an air popper or over the stove.
Because it's a perfect whole grain, popcorn is surprisingly rich in vitamins and minerals including calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorous, zinc, copper, manganese, thiamine, niacin, folate, and vitamin B6. It's also loaded with disease-fighting antioxidants and polyphenols, especially the rainbow-hued red, purple and blue varieties. Three cups of popped popcorn provides four grams of protein and fiber for just under 100 calories before adding any flavors or fat.
Look for locally grown, new season popcorn as it will have the best flavor and texture. Itty Bitty Microgreens is selling freshly harvested popcorn at the Old Capitol Farmers Market through the end of the month. Country Market on Wabash Avenue carries a wide variety of local popcorn in a myriad of colors. After many bowls of research, my family has decided that the Amish Country Red Popcorn is our favorite variety. The small burgundy-colored kernels pop up a snow white with very few hulls.
Toppings are where the nutritional virtues of popcorn get questionable. While popcorn itself is inherently fat-free and sodium-free, many of the flavored varieties are loaded with sodium, saturated fat and hidden sugar. Homemade popcorn can be just as caloric and fatty, but with thoughtful seasoning you can actually increase the healthfulness of your favorite snack.
Consider swapping flavorful and antioxidant extra-virgin olive oil for some or all of the butter on your homemade popcorn. While bacon fat may not seem like the healthiest ingredient, it's actually lower in saturated fat than butter and, because it's so flavorful, a little goes a long way. And, while food you salt yourself is almost always lower in sodium than prepared options, you can further reduce your need for salt by adding other flavorful additions, such as cayenne pepper, dried herbs, and even curry powder. Finely grated Parmesan cheese adds lots of flavor for relatively few calories and, when combined with freshly ground black pepper, makes for a deliciously sophisticated yet inexpensive party snack. Nutritional yeast is also a tasty option. Made from deactivated yeast cells, this vegan-friendly ingredient imparts a savory, cheesy flavor while also being a rich source of amino acids and B vitamins.
Air and microwave poppers are a convenient way to make popcorn with minimal fat, but many diehard popcorn lovers will insist that popping over the stove-top results in the most flavorful result. A wok with a tight-fitting lid is ideal because the sloped sides will cause the unpopped kernels to more easily fall to the bottom of the pot.
We planted a variety of popcorn called Strawberry this year in a three-sisters plot along with burgundy pole beans and summer squash. The small ears are covered with glossy red kernels and resemble large strawberries, hence the name. I long ago gave up attempting to grow my own sweet corn – the prime window to pick is incredibly short and I often found myself with overripe, gummy ears of corn. Popcorn, however, is left to dry completely in the field and is only harvested when the entire stalk is totally brown – perfect for an inconsistent gardener like myself. The dried ears should be left in a cool, dry place to cure for about a month. Attempting to pop it too soon after harvest will result in tough, chewy kernels. Our homegrown harvest is just now ready to pop. I was able to shuck the dried kernels off the cobs relatively easily with my thumb. It was strangely thrilling to watch the little kernels spring to life in my popper. The resulting bowl of popcorn was indeed delicious, though after months of weeding and watering the corn patch, it was doubtless the most labor-intensive snack I've ever made.