What Are Healthy Ways to Eat Popcorn?

Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RD, LD on December 22, 2016Written by Ashley Marcin on December 22, 2016
is popcorn healthy

Overview

You may have seen an explosion of popcorn products on the shelves at your local grocery store. People are snacking on this crunchy treat by the handful, but is it healthy? Here’s more about the different types of popcorn, what’s healthy and what’s not, and some other smart snacking ideas.

What are the different types of popcorn?

If you strip away how it’s made and what it’s topped with, all popcorn is GMO-free, gluten-free, and whole-grain. It’s a great source of dietary fiber and is naturally sugar-free and salt-free. So, it’s a healthy snacking choice, at least when it’s prepared the right way.

Read more: Popcorn nutrition facts »

Air-popped

Popcorn can be air-popped in a special machine that pops it with pressurized steam. When prepared this way, popcorn contains just 30 calories per cup. Air-popped popcorn is plain, so it gives you all the health benefits without additives, like excess sodium.

Air-popped popcorn has a glycemic index of 55, which is considered a low-GI food. Popcorn is also a whole grain and contains:

  • folate
  • niacin
  • riboflavin
  • thiamin
  • vitamins B-6, A, E, and K
  • iron
  • fiber

Popcorn also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, meaning it may help reduce your risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Oil-popped

You can also buy kernels to pop on your stovetop using your favorite cooking oils like olive oil, canola oil, or coconut oil. Preparing popcorn in this way also keeps salt and sugar out of the equation. Still, the oil adds to the calorie count, making this variety come in at around 35 to 45 calories per cup.

Microwave

You can buy popcorn prepackaged to pop in your microwave. The healthiness of this variety depends on what’s inside the bag. The good news is that you can find bags that are butter- and salt-free, and organic versions that contain fewer chemicals. Even those that do contain some butter and salt don’t have to break your caloric bank.

Here’s the nutritional breakdown for some microwave popcorn brands to compare:

BrandCaloriesSaturated FatSodium
Pop-Secret light butter90 (4 cups popped)2 g290 mg
Orville Redenbacher movie theater butter160 (4 cups popped)4 g250 mg
Newman’s Own natural popcorn130 (3 1/2 cups popped)2 g200 mg
Quinn Snacks real butter popcorn180 (3 cups popped)3 g125 mg

Movie theater

You can get popcorn by the buttery, salt-filled bucket at the movies. This type of popcorn may be the least healthy. The Center for Science in the Public Interest revealed that a medium popcorn at Regal cinema contains about 20 cups of the stuff, which has 1,200 calories and 60 grams of saturated fat. Other theaters, like AMC, only have nine cups in their medium size, dropping the calorie count to 590 and containing 33 grams of saturated fat.

Kettle corn

Many fairs and festivals feature sweet and savory kettle corn by the bagful. This type of popcorn comes in at around 88 calories per cup. You’ll also be consuming around 13 grams of sugar and 176 milligrams of sodium in just that single cup.

Is microwave popcorn healthy?

Even if you choose a brand of microwave popcorn that’s healthy, you might be worried that the act of microwaving may be harmful. Does microwaving zap nutrients? Heating foods in the microwave can take away some nutritional value, but so can cooking foods on the stovetop or in the oven.

If you’re concerned that your microwave popcorn contains the chemical diacetyl, don’t fret. This manufactured flavoring hasn’t been used in microwave popcorn since 2006. However, some bags may still have a Teflon-like coating that can break down when heated in your microwave. One of the chemicals in the coating is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which may be carcinogenic.

Read labels carefully, and if you’re concerned about being exposed to PFOA, opt for air- or stove-popped popcorn instead, or PFOA-free brands like Quinn or Newman’s Own Organics.

6 ways to make popcorn a healthy snack

Three cups of popcorn equal 1 serving of whole grains for the day. Since popcorn is also low in calories when prepared in a healthy way, that means popcorn is a good snack option.

Still not sure exactly how to eat popcorn in the healthiest way? Consider the following tips for bulking up the nutrition in your snack:

1. Use an air popper

Use an air popper to prepare your popcorn. This method doesn’t add any fat, sugar, or salt. You can buy one of these machines for under $20.

If you’d rather not pop your own popcorn, you can find air-popped popcorn for sale at your grocery store. Just check to make sure there aren’t too many added ingredients.

2. Experiment with oils

Coconut oil is a healthy choice that also adds a tasty, subtle coconut flavor to your popcorn. To cook, simply heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of coconut oil over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed pot.

Then add 1/2 cup of popcorn kernels, cover the pot, and shake every 10 seconds. Once the popping slows to every two or three seconds, remove the pot from the heat and shake a few seconds more before pouring the popcorn into a bowl.

3. Make it organic

Choose organic popping corn if you’re popping at home. The organic kernels will be free from pesticides and other toxic residue. The price between organic and nonorganic is likely not much different.

4. Experiment with toppings

Look beyond butter for toppings. There are many different products you can use to flavor popcorn. Try sprinkling on some nutritional yeast for a nutty flavor, cayenne pepper for a little spice, cocoa powder or cinnamon for something on the sweeter side, or even Old Bay seasoning if you’re in the mood for something savory.

5. Add some veggies

This recipe for kale popcorn gives you all the goodness of whole grains and mighty greens. You simply bake the kale until it’s crispy, then crunch the kale into a powder, pop your popcorn kernels in olive oil, and combine the two.

You could also try this with Brussel sprouts, spinach, or another leafy vegetable.

6. Mind your serving size

Even though popcorn is a low-calorie snack, you’ll still want to watch your serving size. Instead of grabbing an entire bag of popcorn to snack on, try pouring it into a bowl or measuring out a couple cups before snacking.

Takeaway

When prepared in the right way, popcorn can be a healthy snack. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) shares that popcorn’s low glycemic index (GI) of 55 makes it an excellent food to help with weight loss and maintenance. It’s also a whole grain and contains many vitamins and minerals.

If you have questions about the nutritional content of your popcorn, read the label carefully before eating.

What are some other healthy, easy snacks?

There are many other healthy snacks you can grab throughout the day. Try to keep the calorie count to around 100 calories for between-meal snacking.

  • raw fruits and vegetables: Try a medium-size apple (95 calories), 20 baby carrots (70 calories), or 20 grapes (68 calories).
  • smoothies: You can blend different fruits and vegetables together into a healthy smoothie. Try blending frozen strawberries, banana slices, spinach, and a little water, or unsweetened flax or almond milk.
  • nuts: While you might think nuts are a high-calorie snack, they will keep you fuller longer than many other snacks. They are also a good source of nutritional fat and protein. Thirteen almonds contain around 100 calories.
  • whole grains: Simple white breads and crackers are best. For example, you could eat five pieces of Melba toast (97 calories).
  • hummus: This snack, made from pureed chickpeas, sesame seeds, and olive oil, has a good dose of protein and healthy fats. Two tablespoons contain around 50 calories and pair well with raw veggies.

Popcorn poll

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