We Found Out If Theater Popcorn Is Actually Gluten-Free

·4 min read
Photo credit: vasiliybudarin - Getty Images
Photo credit: vasiliybudarin - Getty Images


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Whether you’re munching during a movie, snacking in the car or just enjoying an afternoon snack, popcorn can be delightful. Not only does it taste great and offer up a unique soft-and-crunchy-at-the-same-time texture, it’s also healthy. “Popcorn, because it is a whole grain, is a good source of several vitamins and minerals — niacin, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc and manganese — and is high in dietary fiber which promotes digestive health,” says Jessica Beacom, R.D.N., co-founder of The Real Food Dietitians and co-author of the upcoming book The Real Food Table. That said, not all healthy foods fit into a gluten-free diet, so is popcorn gluten-free?

First, what is gluten?

Before we get to the specifics of popcorn, it’s helpful to understand the ingredient we’re all talking about. “Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale,” says Beacom. “People with celiac disease have an immune system reaction that is triggered by gluten that causes damage to the lining of their small intestine which, over time, prevents the absorption of nutrients from the foods they eat. Others may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity or a wheat allergy and thus have to avoid gluten to prevent adverse reactions.” Those reactions can range from gas and cramping to headaches, depression and anemia — just to name a few. “I think there are over 300 reported symptoms for both celiac and gluten sensitivity,” says Tayler Silfverduk, R.D.N., a nutritionist who specializes in gluten-related disorders including celiac disease. “Specifically for celiac, if someone eats gluten, they are directly damaging their small intestine so it's really important that they are avoiding it.”

So, is popcorn gluten-free?

“Popcorn itself is naturally gluten-free but since it is often processed on equipment that also processes gluten-containing grains, the end result isn’t always gluten-free thanks to cross-contamination,” says Beacom. On top of that, sometimes flavorings or seasonings that contain gluten are added to popcorn products, Silfverduk points out. As long as you ensure a particular popcorn product does not contain gluten, it can be an excellent addition to a gluten-free diet. “It is a whole grain and it’s a good source of fiber, which are two things that tend to be lower in a gluten-free diet simply because a lot of those whole grains that people rely on tend to be gluten-derived,” says Silfverduk.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

How to choose gluten-free popcorn:

“The best way to know if your popcorn is gluten-free is to read the label and look specially for the words ‘gluten-free’ or ‘certified gluten-free’,” says Beacom. “Even better, look for a symbol of a third-party verification or certification program such as the National Celiac Association, Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) or NSF.” If the phrases “gluten-free,” “no gluten” or “without gluten” appear on a food’s label, the product must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, in accordance with U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations. “The 20 parts per million is what's been clinically proven to prevent any damage to the small intestine,” explains Silfverduk. “A product doesn’t necessarily have to have a gluten-free claim for it to be safe, but that kind of eliminates the rest of the work that you would have to do to determine if your product is safe, which means looking at the ingredients to make sure none of the ingredients have gluten or are derived from gluten.” Of course, she says, if you're worried about eating corn or any other food for that matter, it’s best talk to your dietitian or physician about what cautions you need to take because the side effects of eating gluten can vary depending on a person’s sensitivity.

How to make gluten-free popcorn at home:

The simplest way to ensure your popcorn is gluten-free? Make it at home — it’s easier than you think! “My favorite way to make popcorn at home is on the stovetop,” says Beacom. “I swear by a Whirley-Pop popper — it makes the best popcorn — but you can use any large pot with a lid.” She recommends drizzling popped kernels with a little melted butter and tossing with a gluten-free homemade ranch seasoning mix (which there’s a recipe for in her upcoming cookbook).

And is movie theater popcorn gluten-free?

Some movie theaters serve completely gluten-free popcorn while others’ popcorn is only gluten-free when it’s without the buttery topping. “I would just contact the theater or the chain to confirm the status of their popcorn before attending,” says Silfverduk. “Also, celiac is considered a disability and per ADA reasonable accommodations, you should be allowed to bring your own snacks if they don't have gluten-free options. I would call ahead of time to confirm this will not be a problem, too.”

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