There’s a lot to love about popcorn. It’s crispy, satisfying and so versatile. Whole grain is also a classic snack, as it’s often enjoyed at healthy events, from county fairs to movie nights. However, if you’re thinking about nutrition, you might ask yourself, “Is popcorn healthy?”
It depends. Popcorn can be prepared in many ways, which can affect the nutritional value of the final product. This includes different cooking methods (i.e. stove, microwave, or air-blast machine), types of oils used to cook the popcorn, and additional seasonings (i.e. salt , cheese powder, garlic powder, butter, etc.).
Needless to say, the answer to the question of whether popcorn is healthy may not seem obvious. If you want a popcorn nutrition cheat sheet, check out the top pros and cons of this food below.
In case you didn’t know, popcorn results from corn kernels that have expanded or, well, popped. According to Charmaine Jones, MS, RDN, LDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Food Jonezi, kernels of corn (and therefore popcorn) are a type of whole grain, which is packed with filling fiber. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), popcorn also offers modest amounts of essential vitamins and minerals, including folate, vitamin A, potassium, and magnesium.
However, as mentioned earlier, the nutritional profile of popcorn can vary greatly depending on how it is prepared. But to get a general idea of the nutrient breakdown, check out the nutrient profile of three cups of plain air-popped popcorn (~24 grams) — which equals one serving, according to Jones — based on the data. from USDA:
3 grams of protein
1 gram of fat
18 grams of carbs
4 grams of fiber
< 1 gram of sugar
Benefits of popcorn
Once again for the folks in the back: There are myriad ways to prepare popcorn, so whether or not popcorn is healthy depends on several factors. But overall, popcorn — especially regular popcorn — is healthy, based on the benefits below.
If you’re on a mission to avoid hangers between meetings, go for popcorn. ICYMI above, popcorn is packed with fiber, a type of carbohydrate. And fiber helps increase satiety, or feelings of fullness and satisfaction, according to Jones. Popcorn also acts like a sponge in your gut, where it absorbs water and expands. “This causes receptors in the stomach to release hormones that [tell your brain] you’re full,” says Jones. In turn, you’ll be more likely to feel full for a long time after eating popcorn.
Promotes regular bowel movements
As mentioned, popcorn is a high fiber food. It’s particularly high in insoluble fiber, which draws water into the gut, Jones says. This increases the bulk of your stool, thereby decreasing the time it takes to move through the intestine, she adds. It can be a game-changer if you’re consistently supported because it can help you stay regular and potentially prevent constipation, notes Paula Doebrich, MPH, RDN, registered dietitian and founder of Happea Nutrition.
Reduces blood pressure and cholesterol
Although most of the fiber in popcorn is insoluble, it also contains soluble fiber, Jones says. Soluble fiber, as the name suggests, dissolves in water in the gut, creating a gel-like substance that can help lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Soluble fiber binds to bile (a liquid that contains cholesterol) forcing the bile out through your stool rather than being absorbed by your body, because Form Previously reported. This decreases the overall absorption of cholesterol in your body, thereby decreasing high cholesterol, a major risk factor for heart disease.
Disadvantages of Popcorn
As with all good things in life, popcorn isn’t perfect; It also has some drawbacks. Here are some disadvantages of popcorn to keep in mind:
May cause digestive problems
Despite its digestive benefits, popcorn can actually cause gastrointestinal issues in some people, especially when eaten in large amounts. The high fiber content in popcorn can lead to constipation, especially if you’re already prone to the problem, Jones says. This can happen any time you quickly eat a lot of fiber (from any food) without increasing your water intake. The reason: “As fiber passes through the digestive tract, it needs liquid to bulk up and pass smoothly,” Jones says. So if you don’t usually eat a lot of fiber, slowly increase your popcorn intake and be sure to drink it.
Limited essential nutrients
Sure, popcorn contains fiber and some vitamins and minerals…but that’s about it. That being said, replacing most of your diet with popcorn can prevent you from getting all the nutrients you need. Since popcorn increases fullness, eating too much per day may cause you to eat less variety in your diet, Jones says. This can limit your intake of other essential nutrients, such as protein, healthy fats, and vitamin C. So you’ll want to think of popcorn as a side dish or snack, rather than the main event.
Not all popcorn is equal
Back to the popcorn prep factor. Unlike air-popped popcorn, cooking popcorn on the stovetop often requires oil and butter, which adds calories and fat. Likewise, cinema and microwave popcorn are usually made with added salt and butter, Jones says. Depending on the product or recipe, other ingredients such as sugar and powdered cheese may also increase the sodium, carbohydrate or fat content of the snack, changing the overall nutritional content.
It should be noted that all foods have their place in a healthy diet. But if you need or want to limit certain ingredients, it helps to keep in mind how the popcorn is made.
So, is popcorn a healthy snack?
In short, yes, popcorn is a healthy snack. “Broadly speaking, all foods can be part of a healthy lifestyle, and it’s all about consuming the least nutrient-dense foods in moderation,” Doebrich says. In the case of popcorn, “it’s more what you eat it with [rather] than corn itself,” she adds.
So if you’re looking for the most nutritionally dense choice, making popcorn at home is the way to go, notes Doebrich. This way you can control how it is prepared and what additional ingredients are used. You can use an air popper, if you’re lucky enough to own one, or use a standard pan on the stove. For the healthiest version, you’ll use little to no oil, but adding oil is fine because fat can help increase satiety, Doebrich says. If you decide to use oil, opt for an option with a higher smoke point, like avocado or canola oil, she says. “Fats with a lower smoke point, such as coconut oil or butter, may not be ideal for high heat [that is produced] to make popcorn on the stove,” she explains.
As for flavorings and toppings, use 1/2 teaspoon of salt for every three cups of popped popcorn, suggests Doebrich. If you’re watching your sodium intake, you can skip it altogether or use low-sodium alternatives, like kosher salt. Another option is to use salt-free seasonings such as spices (think: garlic powder, chili powder, dried herbs) for added flavor without excess sodium, adds Doebrich.
If you’re shopping for a bag of premade popcorn at the store, try to choose salt-free or low-salt options, Jones recommends. You can even add your own seasonings to regular store-bought popcorn for a quick and healthy snack. (Pro tip: Lightly spray or sprinkle the popcorn with water to make the spices and seasonings stick.)
What if you want to enjoy popcorn in the microwave or at the cinema? That’s absolutely fine, Doebrich said. “There’s no reason to restrict occasional treats,” she says, because, again, all foods can be part of a balanced diet. If you’re unsure what “casual” looks like to you, talk to your doctor or dietitian for personalized advice.