People with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity need to avoid gluten in order to protect their health and prevent adverse reactions. Gluten is a family of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye, and their hybrids. Gluten is also found in grains such as oats if they have grown beside gluten-containing grains like wheat. This is referred to as a type of cross contact or cross contamination (when food makes contact with gluten). Most nutrition experts recommend purchasing grain products that are specifically labeled “gluten free” to reduce the risk of eating consuming cross-contaminated foods. This is true of popcorn as well, especially because store-bought popcorn can contain added ingredients to provide flavor.
What is popcorn?
Popcorn is categorized as a whole-grain “maize” food, since it is a variety of corn kernel and resembles corn-on-the-cob in cultivation and appearance. However, not all corn kernels will pop — only those from popcorn cobs. Popcorn kernels are harvested from the cob when they are fully mature. When you heat these kernels, they pop and become light and fluffy. Heat will expand popcorn to 20 to 50 times its original volume. Most of the world’s popcorn is grown in the “Corn Belt” of the United States in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, and Ohio. Corn was domesticated about 10,000 years ago in what is now known as Mexico. Archaeologists have discovered that we have been consuming popcorn for thousands of years. Evidence of this is found in fossils from Peru, which shows corn was popped as early as 4,700 BC!
Is popcorn gluten free?
According to the Food and Drug Administration, a product is gluten-free if it contains fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten. In its natural form, corn and popcorn are typically gluten-free grains. However, in the manufacturing process popcorn is often processed on equipment that also processes gluten-containing grains. The end result is not always gluten-free because of this type of cross-contamination. To avoid cross contamination, choose store-bought popcorn and kernels that are labeled gluten free and avoid buying these products in bulk. Most major popcorn brands carry a “gluten free” label, making it easy for you to shop safe.
Always double check the ingredient lists on package labels to ensure your popcorn is truly gluten free as store-bought popcorn may contain gluten in the seasoning. Some common gluten-containing additives include malt flavoring, wheat starch, and brewer’s yeast. When you are at the movie theater or community fair, ask questions about how the popcorn you want to purchase is prepared (some movie theaters state their buttery topping is not gluten free) , if the popcorn machine is a dedicated gluten-free machine, how often the popcorn machine is cleaned, and which ingredients are in the seasonings. If the venue allows, take your own air-popped popcorn from home to play it safe.
Is popcorn nutritious?
The main nutritional advantage of popcorn is that it is a whole grain. Whole grain foods like popcorn include the entire grain seed, also called the kernel. This means they contain beneficial dietary fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. On the other hand, the bran and germ components of the grain are removed from refined, processed grains (like baking flours).
Popcorn is considered a fairly good snack option compared to other snack foods when consumed in moderate amounts (and without heaps of butter or oil!), as it contains more fiber than other snacks such as potato chips. Popcorn’s fiber content also makes it more nutritious and more filling. As a whole grain, popcorn has the following additional nutritional benefits: it contains protein, vitamins and minerals (e.g., B vitamins, calcium, potassium, zinc, and other minerals), it is low in fat and sugar, and it does not contain cholesterol.
Air-popped popcorn without any ingredients added is your healthiest popcorn option. You can air-pop popcorn by heating popcorn kernels in a popcorn maker or on your stovetop. Adding butter, oils, sugar, and salt can turn popcorn into an unhealthy snack, particularly when it is store-bought, since the amounts of these ingredients can be quite high.
Want to learn if other common foods are gluten free? Visit our Diet section.