When it comes to healthy snacks, plain popcorn is at the top of most nutritionists' recommendation lists. Air-popped and eaten plain, popcorn is low in calories and fat and high in fiber and beneficial antioxidants, especially when compared to other common snack foods. Popcorn is a whole-grain food that can be eaten as part of healthy diet that includes at least six servings of grains every day.
Plain, air-popped popcorn contains about 30 calories and 1 gram of fiber per cup. The nutritional value of other types of popcorn products varies greatly, depending on the type of ingredients that are added. If you buy microwavable, stove-top or packaged popcorn, check the nutrition facts label to see how many calories, grams of fat and milligrams of salt the product contains. For the healthiest popcorn, compare brands and varieties and choose those with the lowest calories and least fat and salt.
Popcorn is on the list of whole-grain foods included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It is fourth on the list of most commonly consumed grains in the United States, after whole wheat, whole oats and whole-grain corn. That makes it a significant contributor to the grain and fiber intake of the average American. At least half of the six daily servings of grains recommended in the dietary guidelines should come from whole grains. According to a study published in the May 2008 issue of the "Journal of the American Dietetic Association," popcorn eaters consume more than twice as many whole grains and more than 22 percent more fiber than people who don't eat popcorn.
In addition to its role as a high-fiber food that helps promote gastrointestinal health, popcorn contains antioxidants, substances that protect body cells from damage that can lead to disease. In research presented at the 238th annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, University of Scranton professor Joe Vinson indicated that popcorn contains more antioxidants known as polyphenols than any other snack food. Overall, Dr. Vinson found that whole grains contain as many antioxidants as fruits and vegetables, while in comparison, refined and processed grains contain very few.
Although popcorn does not contribute significant amounts of any nutrients, it supplies trace amounts of the B vitamins thiamin, niacin, B6 and folate, and the minerals magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, zinc, copper and iron. One cup of popcorn supplies 6 grams of carbohydrates. What little fat occurs naturally in popcorn is in the form of healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Popcorn contains no saturated or trans fats, which are considered to be bad for your health.
Heli Roy, Ph.D., registered dietitian and associate professor in the Nutrition and Health Department at Louisiana State University, says that unsalted, fat-free, air-popped popcorn is an economical and healthy snack that only becomes unhealthy when we add oil or butter. Besides adding fat, putting butter or oil on popcorn can add up to 90 calories per cup. Instead, Dr. Roy suggests flavoring popcorn with reduced-fat grated cheese or onion or garlic powder.