It’s a crowd-favorite snack and movie theater staple, but there’s often a bit of confusion around whether popcorn is a healthy snack or not. Yes, popcorn is a whole grain, and as many endurance athletes know, whole grains are a healthy source of carbs. But that doesn’t mean all popcorn will fuel your rides and recovery the same way—popcorn calories and nutritional benefits can wildly vary, depending on how it’s made.
That’s why we tapped Lizzie Kasparek, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., L.N., a sports dietitian with the Sanford Sports Science Institute, to share the nutritional ins and outs of this snack.
Popcorn is a healthy snack because it’s a whole grain.
Whole grains—oatmeal, barley, brown rice, teff, and yes, corn, to name a few—are rich in vitamins, minerals, and some even offer a little protein. Grains are also high in fiber, which has been proven to keep your heart healthy, help maintain a healthy weight, and promote a healthy GI tract.
“Athletes, especially cyclists, need the basis of their diet to be carbohydrates,” Kasparek says. “And the majority of those carbohydrates come from whole grains.”
Popcorn is also a type of corn that’s not highly processed, Kasparek explains. “The less processing there is, the more nutrients are intact in the grain,” she says.
But when it comes to the nutritional value of your popcorn, it really depends on how it’s cooked and what you put on it.
If you look at a no-frills bag of pre-popped popcorn, you get a lot of bang for your buck. (Or, dare we say, penny for your pop.) Popcorn is what Kasparek calls a “high-volume food,” meaning you can eat quite a bit for very few calories. Let’s take a look at the nutrition for a serving of pre-popped sea salt popcorn and a serving of microwave sea salt popcorn.
PRE-POPPED SEA SALT:
- Serving size: 4 cups
- Calories: 140 calories
- Fat: 7 grams
- Sodium: 130 mg
- Carbohydrates: 19 grams
- Fiber: 4 grams
- Sugar: 0 grams
MICROWAVE SEA SALT:
- Serving size: 3.5 cups, popped
- Calories: 170 calories
- Fat: 10 grams
- Sodium: 250 mg
- Carbohydrates: 20 grams
- Fiber: 3 grams
- Sugar: 0 grams
The ingredients list, Kasparek says, should be short: popcorn, oil, and salt.
And the type of oil matters, when it comes to the health benefits of your popcorn, she says, recommending coconut oil—which, if you’re making your own on the stovetop, has a higher smoke point. The worst kind of oil is partially hydrogenated oil, which is a type of trans fat.
Popcorn, it turns out, has a high level of polyphenols, a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to help protect against cancer. A 2012 study from the University of Scranton found that popcorn contains up to 300 mg of polyphenols per serving, compared with 114 mg per serving of sweet corn and 160 mg per serving for all fruits.
But once you start straying from the unprocessed whole grain, sprinkled with some salt, you start to miss out on many of the health perks. “The biggest mistake you can make [with popcorn] is buying fun flavors,” Kasparek says.
She points out that a serving of a sweet-flavored popcorn like kettle corn may have the same number of calories as the butter-and-salt variety, but the serving size goes from four cups to two. And you may be adding 8 grams of added sugar to your snack. “If it’s a sweet flavor, we’re adding added sugar, and that’s not necessarily where we want our sugar to come from,” she says.
As for that movie theater popcorn? The portion sizes (huge), “butter,” and heavy amounts of salt, make it highly caloric and can offset the fact that you’re eating a (healthy) whole grain.
According to MyFitnessPal, a small popcorn, without butter, has 225 calories with 11 grams of fat. A large, without butter, clocks in at a whopping 1,030 calories and 41 grams of fat. To reiterate, that’s without butter. And the butter used on movie theater popcorn isn’t actually butter; it’s a partially hydrogenated soybean oil (a trans fat), beta carotene for coloring, tertiary Butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) as a synthetic preservative, polydimethylsiloxane to prevent foaming, and butter flavoring.
That said, it doesn’t mean you have to forego your favorite cinema snack, Kasparek says. Order the smallest size available and don’t add any extra salt or butter. Or better yet, pop your own at home and bring it along with you.
If you’re looking to snack at home, stock up on some of these healthy versions, which feature simple ingredients and limited to no butter, flavorings, salt.
Boom Chicka Pop Sea Salt Popcorn (Pack of 12)
Skinny Pop Original Popped Popcorn (Pack of 12)
Lesser Evil Organic Himalayan Pink Salt Popcorn (Pack of 3)
Quinn Snacks Organic Microwave Popcorn (Pack of 3)
Cape Cod Seaside Popcorn – Sea Salt
Quinn Snacks Microwave Popcorn – Made with Organic Non-GMO Corn – Great Snack Food for Movie Night – Just Sea Salt, 7 Ounce (Pack of 3)
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With minimal, good-for-you ingredients, popcorn is an excellent snack that’s high in whole grains, minerals, vitamins, and flavor that will also keep you feeling full.
Your best bet is to pop your own on the stovetop, where you have control over the type and quantity of the ingredients add to it, Kasparek says. She recommends cooking with coconut oil and adding a dash of sea salt and Parmesan cheese if you prefer a savory snack. For something sweeter, try sprinkling cinnamon over your popcorn and mixing with a handful of chocolate chips.
“Sometimes we get snack fatigue and need to think outside the box,” she says. “Try a popcorn trail mix with almonds.” Herbs like rosemary go a long way, too, for adding flavor without all the bad stuff.
But that doesn’t mean convenient popcorn is off-limits, she says. Just be sure to read the labels, choosing simple ingredients without added sugar or artificial flavors.