Skip the butter and salt on your popcorn the next time you go to the movies, or better yet, make it at home without any extras. Plain popcorn — considered a whole grain — is a tasty low-calorie, low-fat snack that's high in dietary fiber, vitamin A and minerals such as potassium and magnesium.
One cup of plain, air-popped popcorn equals 31 calories, according to the USDA’s National Nutrient Database.
Unlike chips or crackers, plain popcorn when served without butter or salt is a healthier option, as it contains less than a gram of fat per 1 cup serving. And without the addition of a fat source like oil, butter or margarine, popcorn contains no cholesterol or trans fats.
Popcorn is also considered a carbohydrate; in a 1 cup serving of popcorn, 80 percent of the total calories — almost 6 grams — are carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are found in many foods in a variety of forms, according to Harvard University's The Nutrition Source. Foods high in carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet, as they provide the body with glucose, which is converted to energy used to support bodily functions and physical activity.
The healthiest sources of carbohydrates are unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans, and Harvard notes that they promote good health by delivering vitamins, minerals, fiber and important phytonutrients.
In addition, a 1 cup serving of plain popcorn offers 1.2 grams of dietary fiber, 1 gram of protein, 26 grams of potassium, 16 grams of vitamin A and 12 grams of magnesium.
Read More: How Healthy Is Popcorn?
A 2016 Harvard Health Letter allows that snacking can serve as a good bridge between meals, provided you make healthy choices. Harvard details the most healthful snacks as containing a combination of healthy proteins, carbs and fats — for example, whole-grain crackers with low-fat cheese or peanut butter.
Popcorn falls within this category if you commit to making it yourself. (The prepackaged popcorn sold in bags or microwave popcorn can contain high amounts of salt and unhealthy fats.)
A simple way to make DIY microwave popcorn with plain popcorn is to place about a quarter cup of popcorn kernels in a small paper bag, fold over the top and place it in the microwave. Use the "popcorn" setting if your microwave has one, or cook on high for two to three minutes, or until the popping slows to a few seconds between pops. (Check often to make sure it doesn't scorch or burn.)
Popcorn Is a Whole Grain
The USDA recommends adult men and women consume between 5 ounces and 8 ounces of whole grains per day, depending on age, with a minimum of 3 to 4 ounces consumed daily. At least half of all grains eaten per day should be whole grains.
A whole grain is defined by the USDA as containing the entire grain kernel, or the bran, germ and endosperm. Some other examples of whole grains include whole-wheat flour, bulgur, cracked wheat, oatmeal, whole cornmeal and brown rice.
The USDA advises substituting a whole-grain product for a refined product, such as eating brown rice instead of white rice. Popcorn is classified as a whole grain, with 3 ounces of plain popcorn counting as the equivalent of 1 ounce of whole grains.
When popcorn is made with very little added oil or salt it becomes a healthy snack. Another method is to pop popcorn on the stove in a little bit of heart-healthy olive oil and season it with a small amount of salt (or none at all). Other flavorful additions could include a light dusting of ground cinnamon and a drizzle of maple syrup or chili powder.
Read More: Popcorn Nutrition Facts
- USDA Nutrition Facts: Snacks, Popcorn, Air-Popped"
- USDA ChooseMyPlate: "Make Half Your Grains Whole Grains"
- USDA ChooseMyPlate: "All About the Grains Group"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Choosing Oils for Cooking: A Host of Heart-Healthy Options"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Revamp Your Snacking Habits"
- Harvard University the Nutrition Source: "Carbohydrates"