Study digs into the science of what makes popcorn pop

Microwavable packets and brimming machines at the cinema make popping corn seem like a simple undertaking, but there are number of factors that turn rock hard kernels into crunchy puffs of buttery goodness. Researchers digging into the science behind popcorn expansion have shed new light on the process, which could inform the breeding of higher quality corn down the track.

“The way kernels expand is a basic, yet very important characteristic of popcorn,” says Fernanda Maioli, a scientist at Brazil’s State University of Maringá and study author. “Very hard grains burst when heated. This expansion multiplies the initial volume of the grains by more than 40 times. In the case of popcorn, it produces a unique and tasty food.”

Previous research has delved into the science behind the “expansion ratio” of different popcorn varieties and unearthed interesting insights, such as a relationship with the corn’s starch content and its propensity to pop, or that factors such as kernel moisture can influence the end product.

Scientists analyzed 49 different varieties of popcorn to better understand what makes it pop

Maria Fernanda Maioli

Maioli and her colleagues studied 49 different types of popcorn, assessing things like kernel length, the amount of protein they were packing, how thick the coatings were around the kernel and the outer seed, and how well they are able to transfer heat during the popping process.

“We observed how this heat transfer inside the popcorn kernel relates to the expansion ratio,” Maioli says. “It allowed us to understand how other characteristics may also relate to expansion.”

The team’s analysis uncovered a new correlation between the thickness of the kernel’s outer layer and its potential to pop. The scientists hope to build on this by uncovering other relationships between characteristics of corn that could maximize its popping potential, with a view to breeding higher quality forms of the widely popular snack.

“The purpose of our study was to identify popcorn characteristics related to expansion,” says Maioli. “This will help us efficiently identify popcorn varieties with good agronomic characteristics as well as good popping quality.”

The research was published in the Agronomy Journal.

Source: American Society of Agronomy

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