Popcorn is seen by many as a low-calorie way to curb hunger, especially when eaten plain with no salt or butter. And of course, you just can’t watch a movie without grabbing a bag of the stuff, right? However, a lot of questions have been left unanswered—like whether popcorn should be a part of your Paleo lifestyle, or whether it fits into Paleo goals at all.
Popcorn comes from a specific type of maize called, wouldn’t you know it, popping corn. This corn is specifically bred to create kernels that pop, so only popping corn can make that movie theater snack everyone is so excited about. This type of corn is mainly grown in the corn belt of the United States, where most of the world gets its popcorn. Every year, Americans alone consume more than 16 billion quarts of popcorn—that is one major food craving!
While popcorn is plant-based, low in calories, and contains complex carbs, it’s also packing some not-so-good attributes as well, including toxins. Because Paleo is all about getting the most nutrition with the least amount of toxins, popcorn is going to have to fight hard to find a place in the Paleo diet. Popcorn is a whole grain, and we know that grains (and especially whole grains) tend to inflame the gut and cause unstable blood sugar levels. Inflammation and insulin issues are the last thing we’re aiming for in a Paleo diet!
On the other hand, however, popcorn may not be as damaging as people first believed. This study tested the correlation between diverticulitis (an inflammatory intestinal disease) and consumption of popcorn and found that there seems to be no correlation between whether or not inflammation gets worse and whether or not the patient ate popcorn. And some studies (like this one) cite this snack’s polyphenol content, clocking the antioxidants in at more than what you find in fruits and vegetables. That can’t be a bad thing, right?
The thing to keep in mind is that these polyphenols are found in the popcorn’s hull—that hard part that gets stuck in your teeth. That hull is made of insoluble fiber, which means that your body can’t digest it. And if you’re not digesting that hull, are you really getting any of those good polyphenols?
Because popcorn seems to have both some good and some bad bits, there’s not really a consensus as to whether or not it should be included in a Paleo diet. Some experts in the Paleo community say that popcorn is fine only as an occasional treat, but others warn that it’s a no-go.
Mark Sisson says: “Not Primal, but it’s not the worst cheat snack you can have. If you’re buying at a movie theater, make sure they pop it in coconut oil and add real butter (not butter-flavored soy oil). If you’re doing it at home, use a good pot with ghee or coconut oil. And stay away from microwaved popcorn at all costs.”
Diane Sanfilippo says: “Corn is a big one that people have trouble digesting, which is why I know people like to snack on popcorn, but popcorn does not digest. And if you eat anything that doesn’t fully digest, it’s not really optimal.”
In general, the consensus is to avoid popcorn—it’s a no-no for Paleo eaters. If you slip up once or twice don’t panic, but popcorn’s so-so mix of health benefits and too many whole-grain toxins make it one snack food you should avoid.