There are few things more satisfying than the crispy crunch of freshly popped popcorn. But a treat that tasty can’t possibly be good for you…right? Wrong. Because popcorn can be a healthy snack, especially when it’s air-popped and lightly seasoned. It’s a whole grain that’s packed with fiber, which makes it as heart-healthy as it is delicious. Here’s how to make healthy popcorn at home, plus which brands you can rely on from the store.
Is popcorn healthy?
Snack lovers, rejoice: Popcorn is healthy (unless you smother it with butter and other unhealthy toppings, but more on that later). According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it’s rich in folate, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, pantothenic acid, and vitamins B6, A, E and K. It’s also a 100-percent unprocessed grain, aka a whole grain, which, according to the Mayo Clinic, is the healthiest type of grain and an essential part of a healthy diet. Per the Mayo Clinic, whole grains—popcorn included—are linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.
Thanks to its whole grain status, popcorn is also high in fiber and falls relatively low on the glycemic index, which means it takes longer to digest and won’t cause a spike in blood sugar.
And, according to one University of Scranton study, popcorn contains up to 300 milligrams of polyphenols (an antioxidant that protects against heart disease and cancer), which is more than 60 percent of the polyphenols provided by fruits and vegetables in the typical American diet. It’s also a low-calorie snack; one 5-cup serving of air-popped popcorn clocks in at a mere 150 calories.
However, these stats refer to air-popped popcorn, or popcorn that’s been cooked with hot air instead of oil. Hold the extra butter and salt while you’re at it—both toppings pretty much negate popcorn’s healthy benefits. Here’s a comparison between air-popped popcorn and movie theater popcorn:
Nutrition in one cup of plain, air-popped popcorn, per the USDA:
- 30 calories
- 0g fat
- 6g carbohydrates
- 1g protein
- 0g sugars
- 1g fiber
Nutrition in one cup of unbuttered movie theater popcorn, per the USDA:
- 66 calories
- 5g fat
- 4g carbohydrates
- 1g protein
- 0g sugars
- 1g fiber
As you can see, one cup of movie theater popcorn typically has twice the number of calories (plus 5 additional grams of fat) as air-popped popcorn. Realistically, no one eats just one cup of popcorn at the movies; a small-size movie theater popcorn contains 531 calories and 43 grams of fat, plus 35 grams of carbs.
But not everyone owns an air popper (or has the storage space for one). No worries. Per the USDA, one cup of popcorn popped in oil has 40 calories and 2 grams of fat compared to the air-popped kind, so you can still make this healthy treat the old fashioned way (you know, on the stovetop or in a Whirley Pop).
6 Tips for Healthier Popcorn:
- For the lowest calories, use an air-popper to make popcorn at home.
- If you don’t have an air popper, make the popcorn on the stove with a little olive, coconut or vegetable oil. The popcorn won’t absorb much oil, and the small amount of healthy fat will help keep you full for longer.
- Practice portion control. One 5-cup serving of popcorn has about 200 calories when popped in oil (or 150 when air-popped).
- To keep calories and fat at a minimum, use oil and butter sparingly. Salt lightly to keep the amount of added sodium at a minimum.
- Instead of popping or topping with margarine (which has harmful trans fats), try olive oil or avocado oil, which have antioxidants and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.
- Skip the salt and season your healthy popcorn with dried herbs and spices. Add your flavoring to the popcorn as soon as it’s popped, so they stick without any added butter.
Best Healthy Popcorn You Can Buy:
While microwave popcorn wins for convenience, it’s not quite as healthy as stovetop or air-popped popcorn. (It usually has a lot of salt, saturated fat, artificial flavorings and mystery chemicals.) If you’re going the store-bought route, here are five healthy popcorn options to choose from.