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Where Did Popcorn Come From?

Popcorn is a popular snack for moviegoers. It is known to be one of the healthiest snacks because it has a whole grain with high fiber which is closely linked to lower heart disease and even addresses other health concerns. But have you ever wondered who discovered popcorn and where did it come from?

The creation of popcorn can be traced all the way back to the Aztec Empire. In those days corn, particularly popcorn, aided in establishing the entire civilization.

What is Popcorn?

Popcorn, scientifically known as Zea mays everta, is the only type of corn that pops. Its kernels are more spherical than other corn kernels and are pericarps. A pericarp is when the hull that surrounds the seed is a little thicker. The starch inside the seed is embedded in a protein matrix called the endosperm.

When the water inside the kernel is heated above 100 degrees Celsius, it turns to steam. Water vapor forces its way into the hard endosperm, forming a molten mass similar to bread dough.

The pressure continues to rise until the hull can no longer withstand it. The kernel then explodes.

As soon as the starch bursts, it cools and solidifies into a spongy white flake of popcorn. When all is said and done, the inverted kernel is twice the size and eight times the density of the standard kernel.

Other grains that pop include millet, quinoa, and amaranth, but none pop as dramatically as popcorn. (Source: Hopi Popi)

The Origin of the Beloved Snack

Unknown to most, popcorn is actually an ancient snack. Archaeologists discovered 4,000-year-old popcorn kernels that could still pop because they were so well preserved.

According to Dolores Piperno, a paleobotanist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, corn, specifically popcorn, helped lay the groundwork for the Aztec Empire.

When you have a very highly productive crop like corn, that makes the rise of high civilizations possible.

Dolores Piperno, Paleobotanist, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Piperno cultivates teosinte, a strange grain that is the wild great-grandfather of modern corn. It only has a few kernels on each stalk, and they’re too difficult to eat or grind into flour. But teosinte has a unique property that almost compensates for its flaws: it can pop.

All early corns were popcorns. They were around for millennia before these other forms of corn.

Dolores Piperno, Paleobotanist, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

After a few thousand years, the Mesoamericans were able to cultivate corn varieties suitable for flour, but they continued to eat popcorn. Totopoca is the Aztec word for the sound of many kernels popping simultaneously.

After the Spanish invaded, popcorn spread worldwide, and people soon discovered how popcorn works. The rock-hard kernel,  the same thing that makes teosinte and popcorn impossible to eat raw, turns out to be the key.

A University of Nebraska food scientist, David Jackson, claims that the tough kernel keeps water and starch inside. When you heat a kernel, the starch liquefies, and the pressure builds up until the seed coat breaks.

It acts as a pressure cooker. The pressure cooker essentially fails, and it explodes outward into a popped kernel. 

David Jackson, Food Scientist, University of Nebraska

The liquefied starch froths outward, cooling and solidifying. When you look at a popped kernel under a microscope, you can see the bubbles formed by the expanding steam. Because popcorn is made of bubbles, it is light and fluffy. (Source: NPR)

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