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.
This article reviews popcorn’s nutrition facts and health effects, both good and bad.
What is Popcorn?
Popcorn is a special type of corn that “pops” 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, it has become increasingly popular. It became especially popular during the Great Depression because it was so cheap.
Today around 500 million kilograms (1.2 billion pounds) are consumed by Americans every year, making it America’s most popular snack food by volume.
Bottom Line: Popcorn is a special type of corn that “pops” when exposed to heat. By volume, it is the most popular snack food in America.
Popcorn Nutrition Facts
Many people don’t realize it, but popcorn is a whole grain food, making it naturally high in several important nutrients.
This is the nutrient content of a 100-gram (3.5-oz) serving of air-popped popcorn (5):
- 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.
This is coming with a total of 387 calories, 13 grams of protein, 78 grams of carbs and 5 grams of fat.
This serving also contains a whopping 15 grams of fiber, which is extremely high. It makes it one of the world’s best sources of fiber.
Bottom Line: Popcorn is a whole grain food that is high in important nutrients. This includes vitamins, minerals and very high amounts of fiber.
It is High in Polyphenol Antioxidants
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.
Bottom Line: Popcorn contains large amounts of polyphenol antioxidants. These are plant compounds that have been linked to many health benefits.
Extremely High in Fiber
Popcorn is very high in fiber.
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 (3.5 ounces) of popcorn contain 15 grams of fiber, which goes a long way towards satisfying your daily fiber requirements (5).
Bottom Line: Popcorn is very high in fiber, which has been linked to several health benefits. This includes weight loss and a decreased risk of many diseases.
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.
With 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 (16).
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, 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.
Bottom Line: Popcorn is high in fiber, relatively low in calories and has a low energy density. Eating it in moderation may help with weight loss.
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.
Microwave popcorn may also contain diacetyl, which is a chemical found in artificial butter flavoring.
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 (23, 24, 25, 26, 27).
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.
Bottom Line: Pre-packaged microwave popcorn often contains PFOA and diacetyl, chemicals that may be harmful. It may also contain unhealthy trans fats.
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, a report by CSPI 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!
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 amount of calories, but some of them can also be bad for you in other ways.
Bottom Line: Commercially prepared popcorn varieties can be extremely high in calories and unhealthy ingredients.
How to Make Healthy Popcorn
Popcorn made on the stove or in an air-popper are going to be the healthiest options.
Here’s a simple recipe to make healthy popcorn:
- 3 tablespoons olive 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.
Here is a quick video that shows you how to make super healthy popcorn in a matter of minutes:
You can add additional flavor by topping it 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 (28).
Bottom Line: The healthiest way to make popcorn is in a pot or air-popper machine. There are several ways to add flavor without compromising its healthfulness.
Real Popcorn is Super Healthy
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.