Popcorn is an all-American snack.
We eat it everywhere—the movies, ballgames, amusement parks, carnivals, even our own living rooms. Americans eat an estimated 17 billion quarts of popcorn every year. But popcorn has a hazy healthy reputation. Is it a butter-soaked salty treat, or can it be something more nutritious? STACK has the answer.
When many people think of popcorn, their brain conjures images of a movie theatre snack covered in a mountain of salt and drowning in fake butter. As you can probably guess, this is not a healthy snack.
A 2009 study from the Center for Science in The Public Interest found that movie theatre popcorn is often a nutritional nightmare. The medium and large popcorns at Regal Cinemas contain 1,200 calories and 60 grams of saturated fat. And that’s before adding a “buttery” topping, which packs an additional 130 calories per tablespoon. AMC Theatres aren’t a whole lot better. There, a large popcorn contains 1,030 calories and 57 grams of saturated fat. Even their small size serves up 20 grams of saturated fat, equal to the amount you’d get from 30 Oreo cookies. Cinemark Theatres offer a large popcorn that contains 910 calories and only 4 grams of saturated fat (thanks to being popped with heart-healthy canola oil), but it also contains a whopping 1,500 milligrams of sodium.
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According to estimates, the average American consumes 3,400 mg of sodium a day—more than twice the recommended amount. Over-consuming sodium can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke and a wide range of other issues. Health officials estimate that if Americans lowered their daily sodium intake to the recommended range, it would prevent up to 92,000 deaths annually. Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol levels and increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases and possibly Type 2 diabetes. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 7 percent of total daily calories, so if you’re on a 2,000 calorie per day diet, you shouldn’t be consuming more than 16 grams of saturated fat a day.
The kind of popcorn you find in places like movie theaters, sports arenas and amusement parks probably won’t be very healthy for you. But when you’re in control of what’s going on top of the popcorn, you have the potential to create an extremely healthy snack.
The Only 100-Percent Whole Grain Stock
Popcorn kernels themselves are extremely healthy.
Whether it’s air-popped, microwaved or oil-popped, popcorn has impressive nutrition. Air-popped popcorn is slightly more desirable for a few reasons (but we’ll get into preparation later). The following nutritional figures are for air-popped popcorn. A single 1-ounce serving contains 110 calories, 1 gram of fat, almost no saturated fat, 4 grams of dietary fiber, 4 grams of protein and 10 percent of your daily magnesium.
What jumps out right away are the low calorie and fat totals. At 110 calories per serving, popcorn qualifies as a snack you can mindlessly munch on in front of the television without worrying about major repercussions. The remarkably low fat totals are equally impressive.
It isn’t just popcorn’s relative lack of bad stuff that makes it a smart choice. Popcorn is loaded with several useful nutrients that the body uses to optimize various functions. Perhaps the biggest plus for popcorn is its high fiber content. A single serving delivers 16 percent of your daily value. Fiber is super important for a variety of bodily functions, and the truth is, most people don’t get enough of it. According to the National Institutes of Health, teens and adults should eat between 20 and 38 grams of fiber each day, and men need more fiber than women. But the average American eats only 10 to 15 grams of fiber daily.
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Fiber is like the Swiss Army knife of nutrients. According to the Mayo Clinic, it can help normalize bowel movements, lower cholesterol levels, control blood sugar, maintain bowel health and aid in achieving a healthy weight. The Harvard School of Public Health states that fiber appears to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But the most interesting benefit of fiber might be how it slows down digestion. This helps you feel full longer after you eat—which is exactly what you want from a snack. Popcorn is also surprisingly high in protein, packing nearly 4 grams per serving. Protein helps build and repair muscle but also helps you stay full.
In addition, a serving of popcorn contains 10 percent of your daily value of magnesium, an important mineral used by every organ in the body. It activates enzymes and plays a role in energy production. Many Americans fall short of their recommended amount of dietary magnesium, and inadequate amounts have been linked to depression and hearth failure.
Popcorn is pretty much the only true 100-percent whole grain snack food. There are a ton of great benefits to eating whole grains, and their high amount of natural antioxidants is one of their best qualities.
Popcorn is high in an antioxidant known as polyphenols. Joe Vinson, a chemistry professor at the University of Scranton, recently shed light on how packed with polyphenols popcorn truly is. A one-ounce serving contains between 242 and 363 mg of polyphenols. Compare this to apples, which typically contain only 160 mg per ounce. Almost all of the antioxidants in popcorn come from the hulls of the kernel—the part you frequently get stuck in your teeth.
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A growing amount of research shows that polyphenols play a role in several aspects of health. A 2009 study entitled “Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease” concluded that “polyphenols or polyphenol-rich diets provide significant protection against the development and progression of many chronic pathological conditions, including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular problems and aging.” Many of the health benefits of green tea have been linked to its high polyphenol content.
As alluded to earlier, the preparation of popcorn has a major impact on its nutrition.
Microwave popcorn isn’t terrible, but many varieties are loaded with butter and salt. You’re better off buying kernels and popping them yourself. Popping popcorn on the stove top is a popular approach, but the best way to do it is a method known as “air-popping.” Air poppers are quite affordable, and they do a better job of evenly popping the kernels. If you can’t afford an air popper, you can use a simple workaround that involves a paper bag and a microwave.
When popcorn is popped in oil or fat, it can cause a big jump in its calorie count. If you like to cook your popcorn in oil, go for a healthy oil like olive or coconut and use a small amount.
When it comes to toppings, stick with light seasonings. Things like cinnamon, chili pepper, pepper, crushed red pepper and paprika are healthy seasonings, which can add a flavorful twist without loading up on calories and fat. On the other hand, toppings like cheese, caramel, chocolate, butter and salt are bad news unless used in extreme moderation.