I’m guessing the primary reason you’re asking whether or not popcorn is a vegetable is because you’re wondering if that butter-soaked bucket you enjoyed while watching Avengers: Endgame counts toward your recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables. If so, you’re probably also the type who wonders how much fidgeting nervously in the Starbucks line counts toward the total number of calories you burn each day.
How could popcorn not be a vegetable? It’s basically corn, isn’t it?
That’s precisely the point: Scientifically speaking, corn isn’t a vegetable. The technical definition of what constitutes a vegetable, a fruit or a grain is dependent upon what part of the plant you opt to consume. If you eat the root, tuber, leaf, stem, bulb or flower of a plant, you’re technically eating a vegetable. If you’re eating the mature ovary of a flowering plant, you’re eating the fruit of the plant. By derivation, you’re chowing down on a fruit whenever you eat the fruit of a plant that’s grown aboveground, like a tomato, avocado or a cucumber. Clearly, this also includes corn, which is the fruit of the corn stalk.
Incredible. So I should be asking whether or not popcorn is a fruit?
That would be more scientifically accurate phrasing of your highly suspicious question, but I’ll indulge you even further. Popcorn is made from a very specific variety of corn that’s been bred and cultivated precisely for the purpose of producing popcorn. From there, that popcorn strain of corn is harvested, dried, sifted, separated and sorted to produce your favorite accompaniment to watching the new season of Cobra Kai.
Half a cup of traditional corn kernels yields 66 calories, 15 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams of protein and just 1 gram of fat. Of course, no one of sound mind consumes popcorn unpopped, and half a cup of unpopped popcorn kernels equates to 8 full cups of the ready-to-eat, fluffy stuff. Before any of the salt, butter, caramel or other stuff that you’re going to pair with your popcorn has been applied to it, those 8 cups will administer nearly 250 calories, about 50 grams of carbohydrates and 8 grams of protein to your digestive system.
A note of caution: Please don’t believe the hype about popcorn being a rich source of valuable vitamins and minerals. The recommended daily value of magnesium is 420 milligrams, and the commensurate value for phosphorus is 1,250 milligrams; those 8 full cups of popcorn will give you 88 milligrams of magnesium and roughly 230 milligrams of phosphorus. Since an average bag of microwavable popcorn contains 6.5 cups per serving and two total servings, you really need to eat the entire bag of popcorn to even make a dent in these categories.
But I’m thinking more in terms of the benefits that a reasonable person expects to get out of a fruit or a vegetable. It isn’t all about the micronutrients, right? Don’t fruits and vegetables do other things for you?
If you’re talking about antioxidants and those sorts of things, the answer is a reluctant, “Yes.” Research shows that popcorn does contain respectable amounts of phenolic acid, which is an antioxidant.
But why is my affirmative answer also a reluctant one? Because I can’t count on you to use that knowledge as a wellspring for actions that will benefit you in the long run. In fact, I fully expect you to take this knowledge, drip heavily processed movie theater butter all over it, and leverage it into a 1,000-calorie, grease-soaked abomination that you’ll attempt to pass off as being “rich in antioxidants.” This would be the equivalent of getting drunk from piña coladas because you heard the high manganese content of the coconut will help you metabolize some fat. You’re going to come out on the losing end of that exchange.
Always remember that it doesn’t matter how healthy the components of a food product are when they come out of the ground; it only matters what you’re putting in your mouth. If you eat enough buckets of popcorn soaked in artificial butter, caramel or whatever other mixture of syrup and sugar your mind can conceive of, eventually the only things popping will be your arteries.