Popcorn is a popular, tasty, and healthy snack that’s very high in fiber.
It’s made by heating kernels of a type of corn known as Zea mays everta, causing pressure to build and the starch within to expand until it finally pops.
However, some people with digestive problems, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), may wonder if popcorn is suitable for them.
This article explains whether people with IBS can safely eat popcorn.
IBS is a common condition that causes stomach pain related to bowel movements or changes in stool frequency or appearance. It affects about 10–14% of the global population (
There are three types of IBS. They’re classified by the most dominant symptom (
- IBS-D. The primary symptom is diarrhea, where the stool is mushy or watery more than 25% of the time.
- IBS-C. The primary symptom is constipation, where the stool is hard, lumpy, and difficult to pass more than 25% of the time.
- IBS-M. This type alternates between symptoms of diarrhea and constipation.
Although many people experience constipation or diarrhea at some point in their lives, people with IBS experience symptoms at least 1 day per week (
The causes of IBS aren’t fully known and can differ from person to person (
Research suggests that people with IBS often have increased gut sensitivity and changes to gut-brain interactions, gut motility, immune activity, and natural bacterial populations that make up the gut microbiome (
Additionally, psychological and social stress, genetics, diet, and drugs could play a role (
About 70–90% of people with IBS find that specific foods or meals can trigger their symptoms (
Commonly reported trigger foods include those high in dietary fiber, caffeine, spices, fats, lactose, gluten, certain types of fermentable carbs, and alcohol (
IBS is a condition characterized by stomach pain related to bowel movements or changes to stool frequency or appearance. It may be constipation or diarrhea dominant, or a combination of the two. Food is a common trigger for many people.
Dietary fiber is made up of complex carbs that are poorly digested, reaching the colon almost unchanged (
It’s been found to have both positive and negative effects on symptoms of IBS (
Popcorn is very high in dietary fiber, with 1 cup (8 grams) of air-popped popcorn providing 1.16 grams of the nutrient (
The fiber in popcorn is made up primarily of hemicellulose, cellulose, and a small amount of lignan — meaning the majority of the fiber is insoluble (10, 11).
Insoluble fiber is a type of fiber that isn’t digested and draws water into the bowel, increasing stool volume and decreasing the time it takes for stools to move through the gut (
Higher intakes of insoluble dietary fiber were thought to benefit people with IBS-C. However, studies in humans haven’t found it to have a significant effect (
Additionally, insoluble fiber increases the formation of gas, which can lead to worse symptoms of bloating, distension, and flatulence in some people with IBS (
Therefore, if you experience such symptoms, it may be better to avoid foods high in insoluble fiber and include sources of soluble fiber, such as psyllium, oats, and citrus fruits, instead (
However, if you don’t have problems with foods high in insoluble fiber, you should be able to continue to enjoy popcorn.
Popcorn is high in insoluble fiber, which can cause bloating, distension, and flatulence in some people with IBS. If these symptoms are a problem, it may be better to choose foods high in soluble fiber, such as psyllium, oats, apples, and citrus fruits, instead.
Recent research suggests that certain types of carbs aren’t well tolerated by people with IBS. These carbs are known as fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides, and polyols, or FODMAPs for short (
They aren’t well absorbed and cause an increase in water secretion and fermentation in the gut, which produces gas and can trigger symptoms in some people with IBS (
FODMAPs are commonly found in wheat, some dairy, and some fruits and vegetables (
A low FODMAP diet has been shown to improve some symptoms, such as pain, bloating, gas, and stool consistency, in about 75% of people, particularly those with IBS-D and IBS-M (
Popcorn is naturally low in FODMAPs, making it a suitable food for people on a low FODMAP diet to manage their symptoms.
A low FODMAP serving of popcorn is up to 7 cups (56 grams) of popped popcorn. This is more than the 4–5 cups typically recommended as a standard serving size.
It’s important to note that regular sweet corn is not a low FODMAP food, as it contains higher amounts of the sugar alcohol sorbitol, which gives it a sweeter taste than the type of corn used for popcorn (
FODMAPs refers to a group of highly fermentable carbs found in wheat, dairy, and some fruits and vegetables that can trigger symptoms in people with IBS. Popcorn is low in FODMAPs, making it a suitable food for those on a low FODMAP diet.
Although popcorn itself is generally suitable for many people with IBS, certain preparation methods and toppings can make it less ideal.
Popcorn is naturally very low in fat, with 1.5 grams of fat in a 4-cup (32-gram) serve. However, popping it in oil or butter can make it a high fat food, with 12 times the fat in the same number of cups (
Studies suggest that fats can worsen symptoms, such as stomach pain, gas, and indigestion, in people with IBS. Therefore, it’s best to eat air-popped popcorn (
Additionally, some people find that spices, such as chili, cayenne pepper, or curry, trigger symptoms, particularly in those with IBS-D. Although the evidence is limited, if spices are a trigger for you, it’s best to avoid these in popcorn toppings (
Likewise, certain home-style and commercial toppings are high in FODMAPs. These include honey, high fructose corn syrup, sweeteners, onion powder, and garlic powder. If buying commercial popcorn, be sure to check the ingredient list for these triggers.
IBS-friendly toppings include salt, fresh or dried herbs, spices (if they aren’t a trigger for you), small amounts of dark chocolate (5 squares or 30 grams), and cinnamon and sugar.
Preparing popcorn in oil or butter, adding certain spices or high FODMAP toppings could trigger symptoms in people with IBS. It’s best to stick to air-popped popcorn and IBS-friendly toppings.
Many people with IBS tolerate popcorn well. However, if you find that it triggers symptoms, here are some low FODMAP, IBS-friendly alternatives:
- Kale chips. Kale can be mixed with olive oil and seasoning and baked in the oven for a crispy popcorn alternative that’s high in riboflavin, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and K (
- Edamame. Immature soybeans are a tasty snack high in protein. A 1/2-cup (90-gram) serving is low in FODMAPS, but larger serving sizes may have higher amounts of fructans, which can cause symptoms in some people with IBS.
- Roasted pumpkin seeds. These can be seasoned with salt or other herbs and spices and make a great crunchy snack. They’re also rich in copper, magnesium, phosphorus, and healthy fats (
- Olives. Both black and green olives are tasty snacks that are also great sources of vitamin E, copper, and fiber (
- Nuts. Nuts are a healthy snack that can be enjoyed sweet or savory, just like popcorn. However, they’re much higher in calories, and some contain FODMAPs when eaten in larger quantities, so limit your portion sizes.
- Fruit. Low FODMAP fruits provide a sweet alternative that’s low in calories and rich in vitamins and minerals. Blueberries, raspberries, grapes, and strawberries are particularly good choices for people with IBS and are easy to snack on.
Keep in mind that every person is different, so any food choices should be based on your own symptoms, triggers, diet, and lifestyle.
If popcorn is a trigger food for your symptoms, there are other IBS-friendly snacks that are good alternatives. These include kale chips, edamame, roasted pumpkin seeds, olives, nuts, and some fruits.
Many people with IBS can enjoy popcorn, as it’s a low FODMAP food and a great source of fiber.
However, if you have symptoms triggered by eating insoluble fiber, such as gas and bloating, you may want to limit or avoid popcorn.
It’s also important to be careful with how you prepare popcorn, as cooking with a high amount of fat and using toppings unsuitable for IBS could also trigger symptoms.
If you’re sensitive to popcorn, there are plenty of great-tasting alternatives for a movie-night snack, including kale chips, edamame, roasted pumpkin seeds, olives, nuts, and some fruits.