Popcorn is one of the world’s healthiest and most popular snack foods. It is loaded with important nutrients and offers a variety of health benefits. However, it is sometimes prepared with large amounts of fat, sugar and salt, which can drive overeating. For this reason, it is very important to prepare your popcorn the right way. It can be either super healthy or very unhealthy, depending on how you prepare it!
Popcorn is a special group of corn verities that “pop” when exposed to heat. At the center of each kernel is a small amount of water, which expands when heated and eventually causes the kernel to explode. The oldest piece of popcorn was discovered in New Mexico and is said to be over 5,000 years old. Over the years, this snacking favorite has become increasingly popular. It became especially popular during the Great Depression because it was so cheap. Today around 1.2 billion pounds (500 million kilograms) are consumed by Americans every year, making it America’s most popular snack food by volume.
Popcorn Nutrition Facts
Many people don’t realize it, but popcorn is a whole grain food, making it naturally high in several important nutrients. Many studies link whole grain consumption to health benefits like reduced inflammation and a decreased risk of heart disease. This is the nutrient content of a 100-gram (3.5-oz) serving of air-popped popcorn:
- Vitamin B1 (Thiamin): 7% of the RDI.
- Vitamin B3 (Niacin): 12% of the RDI.
- Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine): 8% of the RDI.
- Iron: 18% of the RDI.
- Magnesium: 36% of the RDI.
- Phosphorus: 36% of the RDI.
- Potassium: 9% of the RDI.
- Zinc: 21% of the RDI.
- Copper: 13% of the RDI.
- Manganese: 56% of the RDI.
Polyphenols are antioxidants that help protect our cells from damage by free radicals. A study done at the University of Scranton showed that popcorn contains very large amounts of polyphenols. Polyphenols are linked to various health benefits. This includes better blood circulation, improved digestive health and a reduced risk of many diseases. Several studies have also shown that polyphenols may reduce the risk of cancer, including prostate and breast cancer.
Popcorn is very high in fiber. According to research, dietary fiber may reduce the risk of many diseases like heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Fiber can also help with weight loss and promote digestive health. The recommended daily intake of fiber is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. However, most people are eating much less than that. 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of popcorn contains 15 grams of fiber, which goes a long way towards satisfying your daily fiber requirements!
Eating it May Help with Weight Loss
Popcorn is high in fiber, relatively low in calories and has a low energy density. These are all characteristics of a weight loss friendly food. And with just 31 calories per cup, air-popped popcorn contains much fewer calories than many popular snack foods. One study compared feelings of fullness after eating popcorn and potato chips. They found that 15 calories of popcorn were as filling as 150 calories of potato chips. Now that is a real difference! Because of its low-calorie content, low energy density, high fiber content and increased satiety, eating popcorn may help you eat fewer calories and lose weight. However, as is often the case, moderation is key. Even though it is much more filling than many other snack foods, it can still be fattening if you eat too much of it.
Pre-packaged Microwave Popcorn May be Harmful
There are many ways to enjoy popcorn, but the most convenient and most popular tends to be the pre-packaged microwave variety. Most microwave bags are lined with a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which has been associated with a variety of health problems. These include ADHD, low birth weight and thyroid problems, to name just a few. Some brands of microwave popcorn may also contain diacetyl, which is a chemical found in artificial butter flavoring. Although the risk to the general public has not been clearly identified, animal studies continue to show that breathing in diacetyl can damage airways and cause lung diseases. Personally, I’d rather not take the chance! Many brands of microwave popcorn are made using hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils, which contain harmful trans fats. Studies have linked trans fats to an increased risk of heart disease and other serious diseases. Even if certain brands say they are free of these chemicals, you may still want to avoid them since it’s so easy to make your own healthy popcorn. My advice? Just avoid microwave popcorn.
Some Toppings and Preparation Methods Are a Bad Idea
Despite all of popcorn’s healthy qualities, the way it is prepared can greatly impact its nutritional quality. When air-popped, it is naturally low in calories, but some ready-made types are extremely high in calories. For example, one report by an independent research firm found that a medium-sized popcorn at a popular movie theater chain had a whopping 1,200 calories – even before factoring in the buttery topping! Ouch! Lookout waist line!
Varieties bought from movie theaters or stores are often smothered in unhealthy fats, artificial flavorings and high amounts of sugar and salt. These ingredients not only add a significant number of calories, but some of them can also be bad for you in other ways.
If there’s one food that years and years of history has taught us goes hand in hand with movies, it’s popcorn. Not only does just about every movie theater in America sell it (and if they don’t, there’s something wrong with them), just about everyone who’s ever gone to the movies has eaten it while watching a film at some point in their lives. Even when we’re watching movies at home, there’s a base instinct to pop a bag of popcorn in the microwave, and lots of video stores, especially the chain ones, sell them along with rentals (or used to before they shut down, at least). I am not going to attempt to get into the psychology behind munching on popcorn during a movie (even though it’s actually supremely annoying to those sitting around you), but the fact of the matter is that it’s really unhealthy.
When I took a look at some of the calorie counts from movie-theater popcorn sold at national theater chains the results were pretty shocking. For example, a small popcorn, without butter, from AMC weighs in at 225 calories and 11 grams of fat. Crank it up to a medium and you’re up to about 430 calories and 20 grams of fat. A large AMC popcorn, without butter, contains 1,030 calories and 41 grams of fat. Moving along to Regal Cinemas, things get even heavier. There are a couple of differing calorie counts for a small, unbuttered popcorn, but they range from 325 calories and 27 grams of fat to 670 calories and 34 grams of fat. Either way, not a light nosh.
Indeed, a recent WebMD study found that Regal’s popcorn was the richest on the market, with a medium containing 720 calories and the large boasting 960 calories. But don’t forget, lots of people also get "butter" on their popcorn. First of all, does anyone out there really think this strange greasy liquid that’s yellow and vaguely tastes like butter really is melted butter? Well it is not. What’s in that, exactly? It’s non-hydrogenated soybean oil that’s been artificially colored and artificially flavored, and each tablespoon contains between 130 - 150 calories. Each pump of ‘butter’ at the theater can be anywhere from 1 – 4 tablespoons of liquid. The calories add up quickly! In fact, if you get a medium popcorn with butter and a medium Coke you could be approaching 1,610 calories right there: the equivalent of four scrambled eggs with cheese, four strips of bacon, and four sausage links, according to the study. So, avoid movie theater popcorn! Take a look at the graphic below:
Popcorn made on the stove or in an air-popper are going to be the healthiest options. Here’s a simple recipe to make some really healthy popcorn:
- 3 tablespoons olive oil or coconut oil.
- 1/2 cup popcorn kernels.
- 1/2 teaspoon salt.
- Place oil and kernels into a large pot and cover it.
- Cook over medium-high heat for about 3 minutes or until the popping almost stops.
- Remove from heat and pour into a serving bowl.
- Season with salt.
You can add additional flavor by topping your treat with fresh herbs or spices. If you want something sweet, try drizzling it with natural nut butter or sprinkling it with cinnamon or shavings of dark chocolate. For an added health benefit, sprinkle it with nutritional yeast. Nutritional yeast has a nutty-cheesy flavor and contains several important nutrients, including protein, fiber, B-vitamins and several minerals.
If you simply must have popcorn from your microwave, try popping a whole cob! You can now enjoy your popcorn directly on its cob with this easy to follow instructional video.
As seen in this YouTube video by Eviatar Amar, simply remove silks from the corn, spread butter or oil over the corn cob, place it in a paper bag (optional), and pop it into the microwave.
Click play on the video to follow the simple recipe.
Popcorn is high in several important nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and polyphenol antioxidants. Not only that, but it is also incredibly tasty and one of the world’s best sources of fiber. At the end of the day, popcorn is very healthy and consuming it in moderation may even help with weight loss. So go ahead, pop some today!