Kernel of Truth: Real-Food Popcorn Recipes

It’s no surprise that popcorn is one of America’s favorite foods. It was first domesticated in the Americas thousands of years ago. Archaeologists discovered popcorn ears in New Mexico that date to more than 5,600 years ago.1 Today the crunchy snack is a mainstay at movie theaters, carnivals, and in many of our kitchens.

Popcorn is often lumped in with junk food, but it’s the only 100 percent unprocessed, whole-grain food we eat, and it boasts some notable nutritional benefits. It even contains more polyphenols per serving than most fruits and vegetables. (Polyphenols are antioxidants that protect cells from damage.) Of course, don’t ditch fruits and veggies; they contain lots of other nutrients popcorn doesn’t provide. But when you’re in the mood to nosh on something crunchy, popcorn is a great choice.

Before you get popping, know this: Not all popcorn is created equal. Read on to learn about the popcorn products you should avoid, discover easy ways to prepare popcorn, and try delicious recipes – all made with real-food ingredients.

The Problem with Processed Popcorn

Pre-packaged microwave and stovetop popcorn is convenient and smells divine, but it’s associated with health risks. While it may be getting safer due to campaigns by environmental groups, it’s probably best to avoid processed versions for the following reasons:

  • Chemicals: In 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency studied prepackaged microwave popcorn and discovered the steam from the bags contains various flavoring and packaging chemicals, 80 percent of which were released when opening the bag.2
  • Perfluorooctanoic substances (PFOA): This class of chemicals, used to line popcorn bags and pizza boxes, has been linked to kidney and testicular cancers and birth defects. Eight companies agreed to phase out PFOA by 2015. But it’s difficult to find information about whether any popcorn makers still use it.3
  • Diacetyl: Until recently, popcorn makers flavored popcorn with this chemical.4 Popcorn-factory workers, a movie theater employee, and at least one consumer have developed lung disease, likely from ultrafine airborne particles of diacetyl.5 Subsequently, the largest popcorn manufacturers voluntarily stopped using it. However, the chemicals used to replace diacetyl may be equally as toxic, according to environmental consumer advocates.6
  • Trans Fats: Some packaged microwave and stovetop popcorns contain five times the recommended daily dose of trans fats, or partially hydrogenated oils that have been linked to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.7 The Federal Drug Administration banned the use of trans fats last year, but food manufacturers have three years to remove them.

Safer processed popcorn is great news for consumers. But the best way to ensure popcorn is a safe and healthy snack is to buy kernels and make it yourself.

Choosing Kernels

If you hear the word “corn” and think of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), you’re not alone, and there’s good reason for that. Ninety-two percent of field corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.8But field corn and popcorn are different, and popcorn seeds have not yet been genetically modified, according to GMO expert Jeffrey Smith.9


There’s some risk that GMO sweet and field corn pollen can blow into popcorn fields and contaminate popcorn with genetically modified materials, according to the Organic Consumer Association. However, Smith says the risk is slight.10 There are other reasons to choose organic kernels, though. Conventional farmers grow corn in vast monocultures, making it susceptible to insect and fungal damage. That’s why it tends to be a heavily sprayed crop.11


Yellow and white popcorn are the most commonly grown types of popcorn. You can also buy heirloom kernels, which come in various colors including red, white, blue, and black. (All popcorn looks white when popped.) Heirloom kernels are often more nutritious and have more flavor and complexity than yellow and white popcorn.12 By choosing them, you help to preserve traditional corn cultures.13 Corn was the most important food in the Americas for thousands of years, and many cultures consider it sacred.1415

How to Prepare Popcorn

No matter which kernels you choose, there are a number of ways to prepare them. Use this guide to decide how many kernels to use:

  • 1/4 cup of kernels makes about 5 cups of popcorn
  • 1/3 cup of kernels makes about 8 cups of popcorn
  • 1/2 cup of kernels makes about 10 cups of popcorn16


Real-Food Popcorn Recipes

Once you’ve popped a bowl of fluffy popcorn, it’s time to season. Popcorn doesn’t need much – a little butter and salt goes a long way – but it’s fun to go gourmet with these recipes. First, make about eight cups of popcorn. Then while it’s popping, mix the topping ingredients together. Drizzle the topping on the popcorn, and use a long wooden spoon to toss or stir it throughout the popcorn. For extra flavor, cook popcorn with unrefined coconut oil.

Garlic Herb

  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Movie Theater

  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 1 teaspoon salt


  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt


  • 1.5 Tbsp coconut oil
  • 1/8 teaspoon sea salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon curry powder

Maple Pecan

  • 1/2 cup warm maple syrup
  • 1 cup pecans or walnuts, chopped and toasted on a baking sheet for 10 minutes at 375ºF

Honey Butter

  • 1 tablespoon butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • salt to taste

Chocolate Peanut Butter

  • 1/3 cup chocolate chips, melted
  • 1/8 cup peanut butter, melted
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Popcorn is a crunchy, versatile, whole-grain snack with a rich history in America. Pop your own kernels, top them with real-food ingredients, and leave the guilt behind.

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