Is Popcorn Healthier for You Than Other Snack Foods?
On its own, popcorn is a whole-grain food that can hit the spot when you’re craving a crunchy, savory snack. Trouble is, it’s often doused in salt, butter, and/or sugar — and that’s the difference between a nutritious whole-grain snack and junk food.
In this article, you’ll learn the nutritional differences between the air-popped corn you can make at home and the movie theater version that’s sold in tubs as big as your torso. You’ll also find out whether or not you should avoid microwave popcorn. (Hint: maybe!)
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Is Popcorn Healthy?
As a whole grain that’s naturally gluten-free, popcorn “can be a healthy, nutritious snacking option,” says Laura Yautz, RDN, LDN, of Being Nutritious in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “Its high-fiber content can help you feel more satisfied with less.”
Per generous 3-cup serving, air-popped popcorn packs about 93 calories, 3 g protein, 1 g fat, 19 g carbs, 3 g fiber, and 2 mg sodium. Those 3 cups look like a lot of food due to popcorn’s airy, fluffy texture.
“You can overdo it on any healthy food. But it’s hard to overdo it with popcorn because you can consume large serving sizes for not that many calories and it fills you up,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, author of The Superfood Swap.
Is Microwave Popcorn Bad for You?
Plain old microwave popcorn is convenient and not necessarily unhealthy, says Yautz. “But it does often include a lot of extras, like salt and fat.”
Jackson Blatner says that some brands contain hydrogenated oils (aka, harmful trans fats), artificial flavors, artificial colors, and/or preservatives. She looks for brands that don’t contain those ingredients — and that use bags made without plastic linings containing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a substance that has been linked to certain types of cancer. Beyond those issues, bags of microwave popcorn often contain enough servings for your whole family!
“Don’t be fooled by the calories-per-serving count on the front of the package,” she adds. “You know you’re gonna eat much more than that.”
Types of Popcorn
There are plenty of ways to prepare popcorn, whether you prefer it sweet or savory, salty or cheesy. Here’s a countdown, from the biggest calorie bombs to the healthiest varieties.
5. Movie theater popcorn
Movie theater popcorn is not only coated in butter (or a butter-like slurry) and salt, but it’s also cooked in oil. Sizes can vary from theater to theater — and they don’t have to disclose nutrition info. A report from the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest found that a “small” popcorn (6 cups to 11 cups) can contain anywhere from:
370 to 670 calories
2 to 34 g saturated fat
210 to 690 mg sodium
And that’s excluding the “buttery” mucilage you can pump on top!
4. Cheese popcorn
Results vary greatly by brand, and cheese popcorn doesn’t always contain real cheese, so check the labels. Chances are, if it’s neon orange, it also contains artificial colors. Per cup, you’re typically consuming:
3. Caramel popcorn
As with cheese popcorn, ingredients differ pretty wildly depending on who’s popping your caramel corn. Whether made from sugar syrup or coated in caramel, a cup of this sweet stuff on average contains:
2. Microwave popcorn
Some varieties of microwave popcorn are simply kernels in a bag, with nutrition info similar to that of air-popped popcorn. Meanwhile butter-esque varieties are reliably higher in both salt and fat. Depending on the brand, though, a cup of “buttered” microwave popcorn usually contains:
1. Air-popped popcorn
“The healthiest way to prepare popcorn is without any extras,” says Yautz. You only need popcorn kernels, along with some way to cook them.
While air poppers are inexpensive, all you really need is a brown paper lunch bag and 2 tablespoons of popping corn. “Put the corn in the bag, fold it over a few times, and microwave it just like you would regular microwave popcorn,” she says. (You can also do this on the stovetop in a heavy pot with a lid.)
Jackson Blatner loves to add flavor to her air-popped popcorn with one of these combos, which are much healthier than the movie theater or microwave variety:
– Cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice
– Oregano and parmesan cheese (for pizza popcorn)
– Turmeric and black pepper
– Nutritional yeast (like vegan Parmesan cheese)
– Honey and sea salt
– Peanut/almond butter drizzle