What Happens If You Eat An Unpopped Kernel Of Popcorn?

Despite our best efforts, it's next to impossible to get every last kernel of popcorn to pop when heating up a bag of movie theater popcorn. As a result, sometimes one of those stray kernels may make its way into our mouth. If so, does ingesting an unpopped popcorn kernel pose any risks to our health?

According to experts at the Dr. Joseph M. Perry dental office, if you were to eat an unpopped kernel of popcorn, you may potentially cause damage to your teeth. Most of us tend to chomp down on a piece of popcorn with our molars. However, our molars are particularly susceptible to cracks. If you were to accidentally bite down on a popcorn kernel and suffer a cracked tooth, treatment would be required to avoid potential pain, decay, or total tooth loss.

Even if you weren't to eat an entire unpopped kernel, chewing on a small kernel shaving can potentially impact our oral health, too. Think of those tiny kernel flakes on the inside of a piece of popcorn. While they may be lightweight, they're also sharp. These small flakes can cause injury to our gums, or worse, lead to a gum abscess if a kernel flake were to get lodged within your gums and become severely infected.

The risk of burns or choking

There is also the risk of burning your mouth if you were to eat an unpopped kernel of popcorn. The steam and pressure that build up inside a popcorn kernel are what eventually prompt it to pop as it cooks. Even for kernels that fail to pop, they still retain that heat after you pull your bag of popcorn out of the microwave. Without allowing enough time for popcorn to cool down, accidentally lobbing a kernel into your mouth after cooking could be a recipe for a painful burn.

But what might happen if an unpopped popcorn kernel were to make it beyond the mouth and travel down the esophagus? This can pose some unique risks for children, pediatrician Dr. Lyndsey Garbi told Romper. "Popcorn is one of the highest-risk choking hazard foods for little children. Toddlers do not have the ability to chew it well and handle the kernels, which can get lodged in their airways." For this reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises caregivers that popcorn should not be given to young children under the age of four.

Other potential hazards of eating a popcorn kernel

In addition to choking, Cleveland Clinic experts note that eating unpopped popcorn kernels may also put kids at risk for a bezoar. While rare, a bezoar develops when an accumulation of undigested material causes an obstruction in the digestive tract. Such materials can include seeds, peels, and hair, according to Merck Manuals — and yes, popcorn kernels too. Most individuals with bezoars are usually asymptomatic. Smaller masses may pass on their own, but in some cases, surgery may be required. In more severe instances, an untreated bezoar may cause bleeding, nausea, vomiting, bloating, cramps, or punctures in the digestive tract.

For the average healthy adult, if you were to eat an unpopped kernel of popcorn, it would be more challenging for the body to digest. For this reason, people are advised to avoid eating popcorn the week prior to a colonoscopy. UnityPoint Health explains that hulls from popcorn kernels can remain in the colon for several days and may be falsely interpreted as a growth. Additionally, these small kernel flakes could potentially block the suction tool used by the physician and subsequently interfere with the procedure.