If popcorn is among your favorite snack foods, you might be wondering whether it is compatible with a healthy diet. Intuitively, it seems like it should be, considering that it is, after all, corn. But on the other hand, it is still a snack food, and you may have been told that it is bad for you.
In this article, we will set out to provide a detailed answer to the question of whether popcorn is healthy or unhealthy. We will begin by briefly discussing what popcorn is. We will then move on to its nutritional profile and its pros and cons.
What is Popcorn?
Popcorn is a type of corn kernel with the scientific name Zea mays everta. Is actually a subcategory of flint corn.
What makes it ideal for popping is the presence of a moisture-rich endosperm. Exposed to heat, the moisture inside the endosperm converts into steam, producing pressure. This results in the corn kernel popping.
Archaeological evidence suggests that people have been consuming popcorn for thousands of years. The earliest known reference to the phrase “popcorn” was in 1848, when it turned up in Dictionary of Americanisms by John Russell Bartlett.
A manufacturing company called C. Cretors & Company invented popcorn machines and put street carts into production, making popcorn much more popular during the 1890s.
But it was during the Great Depression that popcorn really took off. At the time, it remained an affordable snack while others were too expensive to purchase. It also helped to prop up some agricultural businesses.
It became even more popular during World War II when candy became hard to come by owing to rationing. Consumption of popcorn then subsequently tripled in the US.
What is the Nutritional Profile of Popcorn?
Now that you know a bit more about what popcorn is, what makes it pop, and what its history is, let’s take a look at its nutritional content.
1 cup of air-popped popcorn contains (1):
- 31 calories
- 6.2 g carbohydrates
- 1.2 g fiber
- 4.4 g starch
- 0.1 g sugars
- 1.0 g protein
- 0.4 g total fat
- 4.8 mg omega-3 fatty acids
- 200 mg omega-6 fatty acids
- 0.1 mg manganese (4% of your daily value)
- 28.6 mg phosphorus (3% of your daily value)
- 11.5 mg of magnesium (3% of your daily value)
- 0.2 mg of zinc (2% of your daily value)
There are also low amounts of iron, potassium, copper, and several B vitamins.
As you can see, a cup of popcorn provides you with only modest nutritional value. Still, the calorie count is low, and aside from the high ratio of omega-6 fatty acids, there is nothing particularly “unhealthy” about it.
Benefits of Popcorn
1. Popcorn contains polyphenols.
One thing which is not mentioned in the nutritional data above regarding popcorn is the presence of polyphenols (2).
Polyphenols are antioxidants, meaning that they can fight oxidative stress in your body.
As oxidative stress is associated with the development of age-related diseases, it is in your interest to maintain a high dietary intake of antioxidants.
While you can do this by eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, you can also feel satisfied while you are enjoying a bowl of popcorn that you are feeding your body more of what it needs to fight harmful free radicals.
2. You are getting your fiber when you eat popcorn.
Another plus with popcorn is that it is reasonably low in calories, and a significant percentage of the carbohydrates take the form of fiber.
According to this meta-review (3), eating more fiber does not help you feel full, or reduce the amount of food that you eat, but it may be associated with lower body weight.
3. You are unlikely to overindulge in popcorn.
A lot of people claim that the fiber in popcorn helps you feel full sooner and be less inclined to overeat.
If the jury is still out on whether fiber increases satiety, what other reason might popcorn be a food that you are less likely to overeat?
I would hazard a guess that the sheer voluminous nature of popcorn might reduce the urge to overeat in some people.
From a psychological standpoint, a large bowl of popcorn looks substantial. Technically, the food you are eating is not particularly dense. But the appearance of “lots of food in this bowl” might trick your brain into thinking it has eaten more than it actually has.
I can certainly say that this is sometimes the case for me.
Popcorn Becomes Unhealthy When You Put Questionable Toppings on It
So, popcorn looks to be pretty innocuous, right? So why do so many people try to persuade you that it is unhealthy?
The reason comes down not to the popcorn itself, but to what people put on it.
Let’s say you go to the movie theater and you get a bucket of popcorn. Usually, this popcorn comes with “butter-flavored sauce” on it.
This sauce usually isn’t made of butter, but artificial ingredients. As a moviegoer, you really have no clue what you’re putting in your body.
On top of that, rather than air-popping your popcorn, chances are good your local theater pops it in oil. And rather than opting for a high-quality, healthy oil, the theater is going to go for the cheapest oil they can find, which is going to be bad for you.
In fact, it is entirely possible for a medium-sized popcorn you get from the movie theater concessions stand to contain more than 1,000 calories—even before toppings. Add to that the potential unwanted health effects of artificial ingredients in the “buttery sauce” (and its extra calories), and you are no longer eating the nutritious, low-cal snack you can pop at home for yourself.
And then there is microwavable popcorn packs. They’re fast, easy, convenient and tasty to prepare. But are they good for you? Most definitely not.
Microwavable popcorn bags are often lined with chemicals.
One such chemical is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
PFOA can disrupt the thyroid (7).
It may interfere with fetal development as well (8).
The “buttery flavor” found in microwave popcorn is no healthier than the artificial stuff at the movie theaters.
In fact, it can contain a chemical called diacetyl. Animal studies (9) have raised health concerns about this chemical.
On top of that, there can be trans fats present in some types of microwave popcorn.
So while air-popped popcorn that you make at home can be a healthy snack, most movie theater popcorn is not, and the same goes for microwavable popcorn.
Healthy Alternatives to Unhealthy Popcorn Toppings
Many people do enjoy eating plain air-popped popcorn, but not everybody does. But you do not have to put unhealthy toppings on your popcorn to make it tasty.
In fact, if you put healthy ingredients into your popcorn, you can actually turn it into a more nutritious snack.
Here are some ideas for healthy popcorn toppings:
- Salt (in moderation)
- A healthy oil such as olive oil or coconut oil
- Real butter or ghee
- Various herbs and spices
- Nut butter
- Parmesan cheese
- Nutritional yeast
You may come up with other ideas as well. Have fun experimenting with different combinations of ingredients to produce unique flavors and nutritional benefits.
Let’s quickly review what we have learned about the benefits and drawbacks of popcorn as a healthy snack food.
- On its own, popcorn is not a fantastic source of healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals, but topped with healthy ingredients like those recommended above, it can turn into a nutritious snack.
- Air-popped popcorn is low in calories. While it does have some carbohydrate content, a percentage of those carbs are healthy dietary fiber.
- Popcorn is a source of polyphenols which fight oxidative damage in your body.
- If the appearance of a large amount of food makes you less likely to overeat, you may find the voluminous nature of popcorn discourages overeating. The fiber content may or may not contribute to satiety (it appears that more research is needed).
- Oil-popped popcorn which is made using cheap, unhealthy oils can be extremely high in calories and bad for your health. This type of popcorn is common at movie theaters.
- “Buttery sauces” which are not actually butter which are added to movie theater and microwavable popcorn can contain unhealthy artificial ingredients.
- Microwavable popcorn bags are sometimes lined with unhealthy chemicals.
Conclusion: Popcorn is as Healthy or Unhealthy as You Make It
Plain, air-popped popcorn can be a healthy, low calorie snack food. But whether it remains that way really depends on what you do with it.
Based on the key points above, we can provide some easy recommendations to ensure that popcorn remains a healthy part of your diet.
It is best to avoid microwavable popcorn. At the movie theater, steer clear of “buttery sauce” and other artificial toppings.
At home, make your own popcorn in an air-popper, and enjoy it as is, or top it with healthy ingredients like real butter, olive oil, herbs and spices, or so forth.
You can then kick back on your couch and enjoy your favorite snack food the healthy way as you binge on your favorite shows and movies.