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Simran Sethi

Simran Sethi

Posted: September 30, 2008 11:38 AM

Life Cycle: Kernels of Wisdom about Popcorn

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Life Cycle is a series of posts that looks at the environmental impacts of everyday things.

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Fall is upon us, and you've decided to make it a movie night. Footloose on the screen, popcorn in a Tupperware bowl. You're living a very American moment.

According to the popcorn industry, Americans gobble 16 billion quarts of popcorn each year, or 54 quarts per person, or approximately not nearly enough to bail us out of economic meltdown if popcorn were dollars. More than two-thirds of that is eaten at home (mostly in autumn). Although the rest of the globe is catching onto this New World snack, almost all producing and noshing of popcorn occurs in America.

And so we go where so many Life Cycle posts have taken us before: the fields.
Almost a quarter of national popcorn growing goes down in the corn sea that is Nebraska, with Indiana coming in a close second. Other big poppers include Illinois, Ohio and Missouri; all told, half of our united states are in on the game. That's a lot of land use, and a lot of water soaking by our corny little friends.

The popcorn goodness is harvested late in the corn season, after the kernels have long cured on the stalk, but before the stalk falls over or freezes. It's a special strain of maize developed by pre-Columbus Native Americans and since developed to improve popping yield by post-Columbus capitalists.

Nowadays, the picking is done by machines. After that, the corn is dried - a process often hastened by commercial processors with enormous drying "cribs" that utilize forced, artificial heat. Because we live in an area with extreme winters, we are intrigued by something described as both "heated" and "a crib," but imagine purchase of such an energy hog would be environmentally irresponsible and require a lot of money.

After a warm nap in the crib, the corn is hauled to processing plants (proverbial carbon emissions alert!), where kernels are shelled from the cob and moved through screens that catch damaged kernels and debris. Finally, the winning kernels get polished by machines and packaged - from 100-pound bags for wholesalers to uber-packaging for your 100-calorie microwave packets.

As for those microwave bags - like the one you'll devour by the time Kevin Bacon busts his first move - you've probably read about hazards faced by workers in factories where flavoring powders are blasted around. They're at risk for a rare lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, which killed a Missouri woman in 2006 and has resulted in chronic suffering for others. The problem? Exposure to what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration terms "volatile butter-flavoring ingredients" (the chemical is diacetyl, currently being phased out of popcorn production.)

Back to the plastic-wrapped paper bag marked with the kindly Southern gentleman's face. (A recap: Before traveling many miles to your grocer (second proverbial carbon emissions alert!), it was born of land, water, heating units, carbon-emitting factories, plastic, paper and cardboard.
We're just saying.

So, is there a green popcorn? Buying kernels in bulk, popping and seasoning them yourselves is a great way to reduce packaging (both its production and its disposal) and to circumvent those "volatile butter-flavoring ingredients." If possible, find the most regional source for your popcorn (assuming you can afford it - the corn ethanol boom, of course, has jacked with our corn-laden food supply, sent prices soaring), and increased concerns about genetically-modified kernels.

Like with other life stuff, the closer you keep it to home, the better chance you have of knowing what's in it. So get popping, and perhaps swap out Footloose 2 for this gem.

This post was written by Sarah Smarsh and Simran Sethi. Thanks to the University of Kansas School of Journalism, Merete Mueller and Lacey Johnston for research assistance and ktylerconk for the image.