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Out of all the grains in the world, the only one that has a really impressive pop is popcorn. But as common as popcorn is, its behavior is pretty special!

Hosted by: Stefan Chin

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We teamed up with Nature’s Fynd to explain the science behind their fungi-based foods. Check out the link in the description to learn more. [♪ INTRO].

Out of all the grains in the world, the only one that has a really impressive pop is popcorn. Just add a little heat to a bunch of small, hard kernels, and they’ll burst into a fluffy snack. But as common as popcorn is, its behavior is pretty special.

Some other grains can puff up a little, but there’s no grain quite like popcorn. And it all comes down to physics. Popcorn is, well, corn.

Or maize, depending on your dialect: the grain with the scientific name Zea mays. Specifically, it’s a strain bred just for popping: Zea mays everta. Each kernel has a hard outer hull, which surrounds a bunch of starch, proteins, and water.

As you heat up those kernels, the starch and protein turn into a squishy goo. At the same time, all that water turns into steam and expands, except it can’t go anywhere because of that hard outer hull. Instead, it forms bubbles in the gooey mix of starch and proteins and pressurizes the kernel from the inside out.

This goes on until the interior temperature hits around 180 degrees Celsius, and the pressure on the hull is around ten times the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere at sea level. At that point, the hull can’t hold it all in anymore and the whole thing bursts open. Releasing all that pent-up pressure makes the popcorn expand extremely quickly, till the pressure of the vapor inside the kernel is equal to the pressure around it.

Then it quickly cools down and solidifies into fluffy popcorn. All in all, it only takes ninety milliseconds after the hull breaks to make a fully formed popcorn flake. Now, popcorn’s anatomy isn’t totally unique.

Some other grains, like rice, quinoa, and amaranth, have similar starchy insides and a hard shell, and they can technically pop too. They just don’t get as big and fluffy as popcorn. For instance, in a 2020 experiment, popped quinoa only ever got up to four times bigger than the unpopped quinoa.

But those are rookie numbers. Popcorn regularly gets 35 or 40 times bigger when it pops. But size isn’t the only thing that makes popcorn special.

It also pops higher than any of the other grains. You might expect that this has to do with the outburst of steam when the hull breaks. But when a team of French researchers filmed popcorn with super high-speed cameras, they found that the real reason popcorn gets so much air is because of another little quirk.

It turns out, as soon as the kernel breaks, a little leg-type-thing emerges, which kicks off the pan below and launches the popcorn upwards, up to a few centimeters high. We don’t know for sure if popcorn is the only grain to pop this way, but it is the most dramatic. And no matter how much quinoa takes the place of other grains, it just can’t out-pop popcorn.

Of course, if you think vegans only eat quinoa, you’ve got another thing coming. Today’s sponsor, Nature’s Fynd, makes vegan foods that all started with a microbe that has origins in Yellowstone National Park. Through their novel fermentation technology, foods made with Fy, their nutritional fungi protein, are making their way to your table.

And you definitely don’t have to be a vegan to enjoy them. I got to try their meatless breakfast patties and they were super good. I can’t wait to try them again.

If you want to learn more about Nature’s Fynd and the science behind their meatless and dairy-free foods, check out the link in the description. [♪ OUTRO].