Is popcorn gluten free?

Popcorn is enjoyed the world around in movie theaters, at baseball games and at children’s parties. It is very popular thanks to its simplicity & delicious taste. I eat pop corn at least three times a month, sometimes more, depending on the occasion.

Popcorn has been scientifically proven to be a healthy snack. For example a study found that it contains more antioxidants know as polyphenols, than vegetables and fruits do. Polyphenols are extremely useful to the body as they can prevent diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

Popcorn is also very low in calories, if cooked without oil or butter. Air popped popcorn only has around 31 calories per cup and its fiber content makes it filling which is great news if you are trying to control your weight.

Similar to wheat, barley and rye, corn is a grain, so this might cause some confusion as to whether popcorn is in fact gluten free or not. The simple answer is yes, air popped popcorn without added flavourings and toppings is gluten free. However, some store bought and cinema popcorn can contain gluten. Read on to learn more.

What is gluten and who does it affect?

Gluten is a group of proteins that occurs naturally in wheat, rye, barley and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye). The two most common proteins are gliadin and glutenin; the former is the main culprit behind the discomfort experienced by individuals who cannot tolerate gluten.

Gluten forms a glue like consistency when mixed with water and this helps give certain foods their shape and texture. A lot of foods don’t naturally contain gluten, however some manufacturers tend to add it to provide flavour and also so they can produce larger quantities of food relatively cheaply.

The majority of the population can consume gluten without facing any adverse effects. However a small minority experience severe discomfort if they eat it. This includes people suffering from celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and wheat allergies.

Celiac disease affects roughly 1% of people worldwide. People who test negative to celiac disease may also be allergic to gluten, a condition known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. In both cases, when gluten is eaten, damage to the small intestine occurs and this results in symptoms such as diarrhea, bloating and constipation. They therefore need to avoid gluten containing products at all costs.

How is popcorn made and does it have gluten?

Popcorn is incredibly easy to make. All it involves is heating popcorn kernels in a sealed container such as a saucepan. Popcorn is a special type of corn and is the only kind that pops. Popcorn kernels have a tiny drop of water in them and when heated, the water turns into steam, builds pressure inside the kernel and causes it to explode.

The image above provides a good illustration of what popcorn looks before and after it is popped. The kernels are orange in colour and hard to the touch, whereas popcorn is white, soft and fluffy.

Popcorn made in this manner, from kernels alone, without any other ingredients added is gluten free. The problem of gluten being introduced happens when certain toppings and flavourings are introduced. Some sauces and butters that are traditionally added on top of popcorn can contain wheat in them, so you should always read labels before adding them in.

What about microwave popcorn?

If you have ever eaten microwave popcorn before, you know how convenient it can be. Popcorn is already easy to make but microwave popcorn takes it a step further. Simply place the bag in the microwave for roughly 2 minutes and your popcorn is ready to eat, straight out of the bag!

As you can imagine, there are a lot of different brands that make microwave popcorn, each with their own ingredients, some of which could contain gluten. So it is impossible to say whether all microwave popcorn is gluten free or not.

Before buying a bag, you should make sure that the packaging does indeed say it is gluten free. Also, there is a difference between gluten free and  no gluten.

In order for a product to be labeled as “gluten free”, it needs to be made in a facility that only makes gluten free products. In other words, none of its other products can contain gluten. Manufacturers of gluten free products have to have their facilities and products thoroughly tested for signs of gluten.

“No gluten” on the other hand simply means that gluten has not been added to that specific product. However, there could be other products containing gluten that are produced in the same facility. Even though in the majority of cases no gluten products are fine to consume by gluten intolerant individuals, there is always the chance of cross contamination.

For example, this could occur if the same machinery is used to produce products that do and don’t contain gluten. If the machinery is not cleaned thoroughly, minute traces of gluten could be transferred across.

Your level of gluten intolerance will determine whether a no gluten product is fine for you or whether you should stick to gluten free only. Some people can handle extremely small amounts of gluten, whereas others simply cannot.

Is cinema popcorn gluten free?

Cinemas usually offer plain & flavoured varieties of popcorn; it is the latter that you need to be most concerned about. In most cases the plain popcorn will be gluten free, however you can never be sure about the flavoured type without asking.

You can check the cinemas website, ask staff members or call / email their head offices to find out which gluten free snacks they offer. In most cases they will get back to you very quickly with an answer.

One thing to note is that homemade popcorn tends to be much healthier than what you buy at the cinema. Homemade popcorn tends to contain less salt, butter and other unhealthy ingredients, some of which can cause discomfort to your stomach.

So it may not be gluten that you are reacting to when you eat cinema popcorn, but the other unhealthy ingredients inside it instead.

If your cinema allows it, make your own popcorn at home and take it with you instead!

Conclusion

Air popped popcorn, which is popcorn in its simplest form, is the healthiest type and is also gluten free. What you need to be cautious of, both from a gluten free and general health point of view, are the toppings and flavourings that are add to popcorn. Always read food labels and whenever possible, just stick to plain old air popped popcorn.

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