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Thursday, Nov. 3, 2005 07:02 am

Pure popcorn puffery

Behold the wonders of the exploding kernel

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Whether we’re at the theater or curled up on the couch watching a movie at home, popcorn is our favorite snack. Snacking may be the American way of life, but healthful choices can provide the body with the nutrients we need to keep us moving.
According to the Popcorn Board, a nonprofit organization funded by U.S. popcorn processors, Americans consume 17 billion quarts of popped popcorn annually — more than 50 quarts per person. The peak period for popcorn sales for home consumption is the fall, but sales remain fairly high throughout the winter months. How long has popcorn been around? Popcorn is one of the oldest American foods. A 1948 archaeological excavation of Bat Cave, in west-central New Mexico, turned up popcorn ears nearly 5,600 years old. American Indians used popcorn as a food, for decoration, and for ceremonial purposes. Although popcorn has a long history, it was 1880 before American seed catalogs included popcorn. The invention of the microwave has made many of us forget the old-fashioned way of popping corn, on the stovetop. But preparing it the old-fashioned way makes it easier to experiment with flavors without having to add salt or calories. Try sprinkling an herb, such as marjoram, thyme, summer savory, basil, rosemary, or sage, over warm popcorn. Spices are another way to add flavor; try garlic, dry mustard, curry, or chili powder. Where does the “pop” in popcorn come from? Each kernel contains a small amount of water, held in a bit of soft starch inside the hard outer casing. When the kernel is heated, the water expands, creating pressure within and eventually causing the casing to give way. The kernels explode and pop, allowing the water to escape as steam and turning the kernels inside out. Many people know kernels that do not pop as “old maids.”
If you’re looking for a low-calorie snack, try air-popped popcorn. One cup of air-popped popcorn contains 31 calories, 1 gram of protein, 6 grams of carbohydrate, 1 gram of fiber, and just a trace of fat. Oil-popped popcorn contains about 55 calories. Popcorn is a whole-grain food, which makes it a high-quality source of carbohydrate that is not only low in calories but also high in fiber. Much of the information in this column was gleaned from www.popcorn.org, the Web site of the Popcorn Board. Check out the site for additional popcorn-related facts, including tips on how to grow popcorn.

Unpleasant plants
Itching to get out in your garden? Well, don’t make any rash decisions until you attend “Unpleasant Plants,” a presentation by Springfield dermatologist Larry M. Newell, M.D., hosted by the University of Illinois Extension.
Newell will give a slide presentation and lead a discussion about plants that cause skin reactions at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, at the U of I Extension Building, on the Illinois State Fairgrounds. To reserve a seat, call 217-782-4617.
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