Movie Popcorn

23 January 2012

There is nothing like your first movie date with that guy you've been crushing on for weeks. Just as the lights dim and the previews begin, you reach into the popcorn bag and your hand grazes his hand sending those butterflies in your stomach into a flutter.

That "accidental" meeting of hands wouldn't be possible without a little science. Have you ever wondered how those little kernels of popped goodness are created, and who first thought a piece of corn would make such a tasty snack?

Well, you're about to find out, so you can have something unique and intelligent to say to your crush after the popcorn is all gone.

Did you know? Popcorn is a type of maize (or corn), a member of the grass family, and is scientifically known as Zea mays everta.

Inside each kernel of popcorn, as well as in all grains, there is a small drop of water. The water makes up approximately 14 per cent of each piece. This droplet of H20 is then surrounded by a layer of starch which is covered by the kernel's hard outer shell.

The scientific term for the corn's shell is a hull. Unlike the hulls of rice and other grains, the hull of corn is thick and non-porous which prevents moisture from passing through it. This means the corn kernel is unique and it acts like no other grain when it is heated up above boiling point (212 degrees Fahrenheit).

The water inside the corn expands, creating a build-up of pressure. The corn's hull can only handle so much pressure and eventually gives way making the kernel explode and release steam, turning the kernel inside out. If the hulls of other grains behaved this way, then maybe we'd be enjoying a movie with a bucket of popped rice or wheat in our laps!

Did you know? Most popcorn comes in two basic shapes when it's popped: snowflake and mushroom.

Snowflake is used in movie theaters and ballparks because it looks and pops bigger. Mushroom is used for candy confections because it doesn't crumble But not all corn pops, you can see proof of this is at the bottom of your bag of popcorn, which is filled with unpopped kernels. In the popcorn industry these unpopped pieces are called "old maids".

Did you know? "Popability" is popcorn lingo that refers to the percentage of kernels that pop.

There are two reasons why these rebel kernels don't pop. Firstly, if there isn't just the right amount of moisture inside the corn it can't pop. Without enough moisture inside there won't be enough pressure built-up to turn the kernel inside out.

On the flip side, if there is too much moisture, the popcorn doesn't pop correctly either, resulting in a un-fluffy dense spheres of corn.

According to research by Dr. Bruce Hamaker at Purdue University, the second reason for unpopped corn is a leaky hull. Hamaker found that even a small crack in the kernel's shell allows steam to escape and therefore a large amount of pressure cannot build up to transform the corn.

Did you know? Popcorn can pop as high as  one metre (three feet) in the air!

So who came up with the brilliant idea of popping corn anyway? Well it's not known exactly where or how this process of popping corn started. It isn't that there aren't any records of people popping the stuff, it is there are buckets of artifacts that have been found around the world showing that ancient civilizations enjoyed the popped snack.

So far, Archaeologists believe popcorn was first tried in Mexico but they also know it has been eaten in China, Sumatra and India for many years.

Evidence of the popped treat have been uncovered in tombs of Peru, where 1000 year-old grains of popcorn were found, as well as in the Bat Cave of West Central New Mexico where 5600 year-old ears of popcorn were discovered. But the oldest traces of popcorn are from Mexico City, where 80,000 year old fossilized corn pollen was found buried 200 feet below the city.

So the next time you grab a handful of popcorn on a date or out with your friends just catching a flick, you'll know there is a science and a history to those tiny but tasty snacks.

Learn More!


NASA: A look at popcorn on Popcorn

Sarah Hoyles is an Associate Producer on the CBC radio program “Definitely Not the Opera”. Before joining the DNTO team in Winnipeg, Sarah freelanced with various radio stations including CBC Radio 3 as well as Edmonton’s CKUA radio and local newspapers. She graduated from the Journalism program at the University of King's College in Halifax and the University of Alberta with an Honors Arts degree in Drama.


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