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Hilly on Health: Is popcorn healthy?

June 17th 2013 / Hilly Janes

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Popcorn has been popping up all over the place of late - but is it healthy? Hilly Janes finds out

I suppose it was appropriate that at a screening of The Hunger Games, I found myself sitting across the aisle from a large gentleman tucking into a mega bucket of popcorn. My husband legged it to another seat pronto, but I stayed put and tried to focus on the film, despite the scrabbling and munching. Much to my relief the gentleman finished quite quickly. Then he got up, walked out of the cinema and came back in with another bucket.

Popcorn really annoys me. It has ruined many a movie and I hate the way it gets stuck to the roof of your mouth and in between your teeth. But then the Get the Gloss boss asked me to write about it. “It’s everywhere,” she said. “Is it really good for us? And which brands are the best?”

She’s too right it’s everywhere. There are packets of it all over my office floor for a start. Within 10 minutes walk of my house in north London I’ve been able to buy eight different brands, from outlets including Sainsbury’s, Pret a Manger and Planet Organic, in flavours ranging from old fashioned sweet and salted to trendy wasabi. What was once a sweet treat at the cinema was the UK’s fastest growing snack last year, says industry news website foodbev.com, with sales up by 21 per cent, according to analysts Kantar Worldpanel.

One theory about the popcorn explosion here is that tough times in the UK mean we watch more movies at home and buy our own popcorn. It first became a popular snack during the US depression in the 1920s, when rotary machines were invented that made it cheap and easy to produce.

MORE GLOSS: Amelia Freer's healthy frittata recipe

Our search for new snacks is endless, it seems, and there’s nothing the food industry likes better than flogging us cheap carbs tarted up with sugar, salt and fat to fill the gap. You can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll make even more bucks by slapping words like “authentic”, “proper”, “natural” on the packaging - none of which are subject to regulation.

First it was handcooked crisps, now it’s popcorn. To add an even more wholesome-sounding touch, there’ll often be a twee narrative attached, something to do with mum/dad/granny’s old recipe, traditional ingredients etc, possibly illustrated with retro black and white photos of people in little round glasses. But are we being conned into thinking it’s healthy?

Popcorn belongs to the maize family, and is closely related to corn on the cob and tinned/frozen sweetcorn. It’s been around for centuries and was thought by ancient cultures to have magical properties. Now we know it’s not angry spirits that make it pop, but that the water inside each kernel expands when heated until the hard exterior breaks. The moisture evaporates quickly, leaving the puffed up starchy bit. There are different varieties, like butterfly, which produces irregular shapes, and mushroom, which is more circular.

So far so good. It’s a wholegrain, high in fibre and reasonably high in protein too, so it’s filling and absorbed more slowly than refined carbs. But eat popcorn with no seasoning or fat and you might as well eat cardboard. While it can be air popped without heating in oil, it’s these additions that make it tasty, and that’s where the trouble starts. Big trouble in the case of the gent at The Hunger Games - according to the cinema’s website, a large carton of the sweet kind contains 869 calories, 48g of sugar (about 10 teaspoons) and 29g grams of fat.

Trying to work out which kind is healthier is a minefield. While the nutritious components - the fibre and protein - remain fairly constant because they are intrinsic to the corn, the amount of added sugar, fat and salt varies hugely, not to mention other additives and flavourings. In general, low sugar means high fat and vice versa. My research (admittedly somewhat random) threw up some surprising results. All amounts are per 100g.

Calories

I tried 11 different varieties and they all come in at around 400-500 calories. The highest was Bloom’s Sesame and Salt (horribly moreish even for a popcornophobe) and the lowest was Butterkist Light at 290.

Fat

Highest was Bloom’s, at 29%. The lowest fat was Love Da’s Caramel & Toffee at 3.6%

Sugar

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Highest sugar was Sainsbury’s Toffee Popcorn at 60% and the lowest was Propercorn’s Lightly Salted at 0.67%.

Fibre

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Highest for fibre was Propercorn Fiery Worcester Sauce and Sun Dried Tomato at 14.5%. Lowest in fibre was Sainsbury’s Toffee at 2%.

Protein

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Highest was Diva Sweet and Salt 13.4%; lowest was Butterkist Light at 3%.

Salt

Highest was Pret a Manger Wasabi, 3.4%, while lowest was Love Da at 0.13%.

Serving size

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This varies hugely from brand to brand - the smallest snack size I found was Sainsbury’s Smoked Paprika, 11g and 53 cals, while the biggest was their 50g Toffee Popcorn, 210 cals.

Price

It doesn’t come cheap. I spent around 80p-90p a bag - a lot more than crisps.

Crisps

While popcorn does contain more protein and fibre than crisps, again, what’s added can tip the scales away from healthy. Tyrell’s Proper Sour Cream and Jalapeno Popcorn contains more calories, fat and sugar, for example, than its Sweet Chilli and Red Pepper crisps. And a packet of Walker’s Salt and Vinegar crisps, while higher in fat and salt and with less fibre than nearly all the popcorn, has almost no sugar and about the same amount of protein.

You get the picture - and the only way around it is to read the labels. I think I’ll stick to crisps - but definitely not at the cinema...

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