What Are Popcorn Kernels?

  • Author: Sue Dorrens
  • Published: December 15, 2022
  • Time to read: 5 min.

Popcorn is eaten worldwide and is the snack of choice for many. Have you ever wondered what these tiny seeds are made of? Understanding what popcorn kernels are and their makeup might be just what you need to make this snack more enjoyable.

Are Popcorn Kernels Just Corn?

By definition, a kernel is essentially the consumable part of a fruit, seed, or nut. Therefore, a popcorn kernel refers to the seed of corn that makes popcorn.

Popcorn kernels are a special type of corn strain that “pops”. Scientifically, they are the only variety capable of this. The biological name of this special variety is Zea mays everta. Interestingly, the discovery of popcorn is attributed to trial and error by prehistoric civilizations.

Popcorn kernels are qualified as seeds because they contain an embryo. Therefore, they can reproduce at the right temperature and moisture content. Each seed of popcorn has three main layers that contribute to its ability to pop. They include:

  • The seed coat/ pericarp: The outermost layer is made of cellulose that gives the kernel color. It protects the inner parts of the seed.
  • The endosperm: This next layer is yellow or white and has starch granules. Its function is to give energy to the embryo.
  • The germ/ embryo: The innermost part of the kernel. It is the only living part and is responsible for stimulating germination in the right conditions.

How Do Popcorn Kernels Pop?

For popcorn kernels to pop, they require water found in the starchy layer of the endosperm and heat. During heating up on their own or with oil, there is a high-pressure buildup during the cooking. This causes an explosion, giving fluffy and airy balls of popcorn.

Due to the hard nature of the seed coat, the water heated up in the endosperm cannot escape. As it turns to steam, it softens the surrounding starchy environment and the steam particles move faster.

When the amount of steam goes up, the speed of the water particles goes up. Therefore, an increase in pressure is exerted. The pressure from inwards supersedes that exacted by the seed coat and it bursts, producing cooked puffed products.

The final color of the popcorn is dependent on the strain and characteristics of the corn used. This process is quite fascinating and, according to the National Agricultural Library, it has inspired the folklore of Native Americans.

To find out more about the origins of popcorn, check our article: The Culture that Introduced Popcorn to the World.

What’s the Difference Between Popcorn Kernels and Regular Corn?

The main difference lies in the seed coat. Unlike other varieties of corn, the seed coat of popcorn kernels is impermeable. Therefore, this allows water to be trapped in the form of steam, creating the pressure to rapture the pericarp.

In addition, there are other differences, including:

Procedure of Harvesting

Corn harvesting happens before, during, and after maturity. It depends on the type of corn. However, popcorn can only be harvested after the plant browns. This is done to achieve an optimum moisture content of 25% or less.

The Appearance of the Seed

After harvesting, popcorn has a bold and vibrant orange color with a yellow hue. On the other hand, other types of corn predominantly maintain a deep yellow or white appearance. Furthermore, popcorn has a tough exterior, while other types of corn tend to be softer.

The Method of Preparation and Consumption

Some types of regular corn, such as sweet corn, are consumable while on the cob or after grilling. However, popcorn cannot be digested in this form and needs to be popped. Consuming unpopped kernels is a choking hazard and can damage teeth, especially in children.

For more information on digesting popcorn, check our article.

The End Products They Make

Regular corn can undergo processing into other products. These include corn oil, corn meal, corn starch, and syrups. However, popcorn kernels can only make popcorn.

The Difference in Calories

It takes a small number of kernels to produce a satisfying bowl of popcorn for a small number of calories. However, regular corn offers more calories for the same serving, depending on the form it is in.

Need some ideas for old popcorn kernels?

What Kernels Are Used for Popcorn?

popcorn kernels
What makes kernels turn into the shape of popcorn? – Heat!

Only the Zea mays ‘everta’ variety of corn produces popcorn. However, many strains of this variety produce popcorn with varying appearances and flavors.

They are classified under two main categories based on their shape:

Mushroom Popcorn

The name comes from the round shape that they form when popped. Its appearance is similar to the mushroom head. If you are a fan of flavored popcorn, this might be the one for you. Due to the extensive surface area, the layered flavor is likely to hold more.

Some flavors you can try out with mushroom popcorn are cheese, chocolate, sugar, or caramel. Their solid texture assures you of little to no crumbling.

Butterfly Popcorn

When popped, this variety produces foamy and fluffy snowflake kernels that are crunchy. The ‘wing’ makes it a good option if you like buttery or spicy popcorn. However, according to the American Chemical Society, the irregular shape makes it brittle.

Therefore, you may want to avoid heavy toppings such as chocolate or caramel, as you may end up with crumblier bits than whole, crunchy pieces.

Check our article Mushroom Popcorn Vs Butterfly Popcorn for a more in-depth look.

Do Popcorn Kernels Go Bad?

Yes, popcorn kernels do expire. For some ideas on what you can do with expired popcorn kernels check this article.

Ever wondered what the most popular popcorn brands in the world are?

Are Popcorn Kernels Unhealthy?

On their own, popcorn kernels are filling and healthy snacks. Furthermore, they are quite low in calories, with only 93 calories for three cups, or 24 grams. They also offer nutritional benefits. They are high in fiber, have very little fat, and are a good source of vitamins A and K.

For more information on how many cups are in a bag of popcorn, check this article.

However, the health benefits of popcorn depend on the preparation methods. The addition of toppings that are high in sugar, sodium, and fat can make it quite unhealthy. Some of these toppings include excess caramel, salt, and cheese.

Furthermore, the addition of oil during the stove-top preparation can add extra calories. The key is to practice moderation. If you like toppings, it is better to make your popcorn at home and use small amounts to add flavor.

In addition, you can buy an air popper to reduce the use of oil during preparation. If you want to buy it from the supermarket, make sure to check the nutritional labels. Avoid high-calorie brands.

Learn about red popcorn kernels next.



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