Calories in Popcorn: Air-Popped, Oil-Popped, Movie Theater and More

Making your popcorn at home can be a smart way to control how many calories you're eating.
Image Credit: Mike Kemp/Tetra images/GettyImages

Popcorn makes for a delicious snack — and it can be a healthy one, too, as long as it's prepared with nutrition in mind.

The fat and calorie amounts in the popcorn you get at the movies, for instance, are vastly different from the nutrition and calories in popcorn with little-to-no butter.

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We'll examine the nutrition info for all types of popcorn so you can decide how much or how little you plan to eat — and munch accordingly.

Popcorn Nutrition

Since popcorn is technically a form of a vegetable (and also a grain), it offers some nutritional rewards, according to the USDA. One cup of popped popcorn provides vitamin A, calcium, fiber, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, carotene and lutein.

Three cups of popcorn is equal to about one serving from the grain group, according to the Popcorn Board. Popcorn also contains fiber (about 1.2 grams per cup), which can stave off hunger and help keep you fuller for longer.

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Popcorn's calorie, fat and carbohydrate content will vary depending on how it is prepared, which you'll see below.

Air-Popped Popcorn Nutrition Info

Air-popped popcorn is made without butter or oil, so it is the lowest in calories. One cup of air-popped popcorn contains:

  • Calories: 31
  • Total fat: 0.4 g
  • Carbohydrates: 6.2 g
  • Dietary fiber: 1.2 g
  • Protein: 1 g

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Plain popcorn is mostly made up of carbohydrates, followed by protein, per the USDA. You can consider butterless popcorn a healthy snack, considering it is so low in calories and contains heart-healthy fiber.

Unpopped Popcorn Kernels

Popcorn kernel hulls are made up of fat, protein, carbohydrates and water. When heated, pressure builds inside, the kernel expands and explodes, forming edible popcorn.

If you've ever read the label on a container of popcorn kernels, you may have wondered why popcorn has fewer calories when it's popped.

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Two tablespoons of unpopped kernels contain:

  • Calories: 110
  • Total fat: 1.5 g
  • Carbohydrates: 22 g
  • Dietary fiber: 4 g
  • Protein: 3 g

What can be so confusing about the calories in unpopped popcorn vs. popped popcorn is that, when cooked, popcorn expands about 35 to 40 times the size of the kernel, per the University of Chicago. So while 2 tablespoons of kernels with 110 calories may seem high, once cooked, that amount will make roughly 4 cups of popcorn.

One cup of unpopped popcorn kernels will make approximately 8 quarts (or 32 cups or 2 gallons) of popped popcorn, according to this very handy popcorn kernel calculator.

Olive Oil-Popped Popcorn Nutrition Info

Using extra virgin olive oil to cook popcorn on the stove is a healthy option, per the Cleveland Clinic. While air-popping popcorn will result in the least amount of calories, adding olive oil will amp up your intake of healthy fats, which can help control hunger, among other benefits.

The number of calories in your popcorn cooked with olive oil will vary depending on how much oil and popcorn you're using. If you follow a general recipe for stovetop popcorn cooked with olive oil, a 1-cup serving will contain numbers close to the following:

  • Calories: 55
  • Total fat: 3 g
  • Carbohydrates: 6.2 g
  • Dietary fiber: 1.2 g
  • Protein: 1 g

When you add oil for popping, even healthy extra virgin olive oil, you'll increase the calories in the food because the fat from the olive oil sticks to the kernels.

Fats have the same amount of calories whether they're in solid or liquid form. In general, fat contains 120 calories per tablespoon, according to Clemson Cooperative Extension. While there are 1,090 calories in 1 cup of olive oil, per the USDA, you wouldn't use such a large amount to cook a few servings of popcorn.

Olive oil is mostly monounsaturated fat, which can have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels, while butter is half saturated fat.

While it is high in calories, olive oil packs health benefits. A meta-analysis of studies published in the December 2018 issue of Maturitas found that olive oil is linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and some cancers, including breast cancer.

Additionally, July 2019 research in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition founds that extra virgin olive oil can reduce inflammation. This is due to the presence of oleic acid, extra virgin olive oil's primary fatty acid, as well as other minor components in the oil.

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Movie Theater Popcorn Nutrition Info

It's not news that movie theater popcorn tends to contain more calories and fat than its counterparts — but the numbers can still be a bit startling.

A December 2009 analysis of movie theatre popcorn commissioned by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found that big movie theaters generally understated the number of calories in their popcorn.

Regal Cinemas, for example, said at the time that a medium-size popcorn contained 760 calories, but CSPI's lab tests found the calorie count to be closer to 1,200.

As the ingredients in movie theatre popcorn is often controlled by the person making the food, the nutrition of movie popcorn can vary. That said, the USDA reports that an average 1-cup serving of movie theater popcorn with added butter contains:

  • Calories: 92
  • Total fat: 8.2
  • Carbohydrates: 4.4
  • Dietary fiber: 0.8 g
  • Protein: 0.7 g

Keep in mind that it's understandably tough to stick to just one serving of this buttery, crunchy snack when it comes in a large tub. Even a small size popcorn at Regal contains 11 cups of popcorn, per CSPI's research, which, if you were to eat the whole thing, equates to 1,012 calories.

Microwavable Popcorn Bags Nutrition Info

The fact that you can read how many calories your microwaved popcorn contains can be very convenient — just make sure to look at the amount per serving and do the proper math.

While one serving of Orville Redenbacher's Movie Theater Butter popcorn contains 170 calories and 11 grams of fat per serving, there are 2.5 servings per bag. This means you'd be consuming 425 calories and 27.5 grams of fat if you were to eat the whole bag.

If you have trouble stopping at just one serving (we wouldn't blame you!), consider mini popcorn bags, which generally offer just one serving per bag.

While choosing Orville Redenbacher mini bags or Smart Pop mini bags might keep your calorie consumption down, know that experts say microwave popcorn has some other pitfalls. Microwavable popcorn bags often contain a lot of salt and artificial flavorings, per the Cleveland Clinic.

Tip

Buying popcorn with no salt can be a better option because you can control how much salt you add yourself, or you can choose salt-free flavorings.

Another concern: The specially designed microwave bags contain chemicals called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the same chemical used in Teflon nonstick coating, and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), per a December 2013 report in Environmental Health Perspectives. These chemicals, in high amounts, are linked to cancer, immunotoxicity, weight gain, altered thyroid function, among others.

An October 2019 study in Environmental Health Perspectives observed that eating microwave popcorn increased the concentration of PFOA and PFOS in the blood.

As the public increasingly becomes aware of these types of chemicals in food, manufacturers have made tweaks to ingredients and packaging. It's important to read labels so you can be aware of what your food contains, and call manufacturers directly if you have a specific concern.

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