Healthy snacks don't always taste great, but luckily popcorn is a blessed exception. You can eat popcorn if you have diabetes, because even though it has carbs, it's a whole grain food that also has fiber.
Popcorn can be a healthy snack for people with diabetes if it’s air popped and doesn’t contain loads of butter and salt.
Popcorn’s Glycemic Index
The glycemic index is a scale from one to 100 that measures how much your blood sugar will increase after you eat foods that contain carbohydrates. Foods that have a high glycemic index are digested quickly and cause your blood sugar to spike. Foods with a low glycemic index tend to have more fiber, protein and fat, which slow down the rate at which your food is absorbed.
Foods with a lower glycemic index are considered to be healthier, because they are digested slowly and result in a gradual increase in your blood sugar levels. They help people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes manage their glucose, lipid and insulin levels.
Plain microwave popcorn has a glycemic index of 55, which is relatively good, according to the USDA. It is at the upper end of the list of foods with a low glycemic index. Just to give you some perspective, chickpea hummus has a glycemic index of six, pure glucose has a glycemic index of 100 and Fruit-Roll Ups have a glycemic index of 99.
Popcorn’s Glycemic Load
The glycemic load is another important parameter when it comes to assessing how a certain food will affect your blood sugar. While the glycemic index tells you how drastically a food raises your blood sugar, the glycemic load tells you how high your blood sugar could go when you actually eat the food.
For example, watermelon has a relatively high glycemic index of 80. However, the glycemic load is only five, because a serving of watermelon has so few carbs. Glycemic load is therefore a slightly more accurate representation of how a food will affect your blood sugar.
Popcorn’s Fiber Content
Fiber is a critical component of the diabetic diet, because it slows down the absorption of sugar and helps steady your blood sugar levels. While popcorn does contain carbohydrates, the fiber content in the popcorn slows down the rate at which the carbohydrates are digested and prevents blood sugar spikes.
The fiber and protein content in popcorn also help promote satiety. A September 2016 study published in the journal Advances in Nutrition found that popcorn is a good snack because it promotes satiety and can therefore play a role in appetite control and weight management.
The authors of the study note that in today's society, one-third of our daily energy intake is from snacks, with many snacks consisting of energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods, so choosing healthy snacks is important.
Popcorn’s Nutrition Value
Apart from fiber, popcorn contains a number of essential nutrients, making it a very nutritious snack as well. The vitamins in popcorn include folate, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, pantothenic acid and vitamins A, B6, E and K. Popcorn also contains a number of minerals like iron, calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.
In fact, the kernel's hull, or outer coating, stores much of its nutritional value. It contains beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, which help maintain eye health. The hull also contains polyphenols that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that protect against diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, according to a January 2019 study published in the journal Antioxidants.
The Verdict: Popcorn Passes
All things considered, popcorn can be a healthful snack for people with diabetes, provided it is eaten the right way.
In fact, a February 2014 study published in the Journal of Education and Health Promotion lists popcorn without any salt, butter or hydrogenated oils as a healthy snack for people with diabetes, as part of a larger study that explores the management of diabetes through dietary and lifestyle changes.
Snacking on Popcorn Healthfully
Even many store-bought varieties of popcorn and ready-made popcorn mixes contain a lot of salt, sugar and hydrogenated fats. The safest option is to buy just the kernels and air-pop them yourself, either in the microwave or on the stove.
Use minimal salt, or skip it altogether and sprinkle garlic or onion powder instead for flavor. You can also use herbs to help season your popcorn; use a mixture of dried oregano, basil and thyme and add a dash of paprika if you want to give it a little kick.
Sprinkle the seasoning on the popcorn immediately after you pop it, so that the moisture from the steam helps it stick. If it still feels a little dry, you can add a dash of olive oil to it instead of butter. You can also spray it lightly with a butter-flavored cooking spray instead. If you're in the mood to get creative, you can make a seasoning blend with ingredients like balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and hot sauce.
Avoid kettle corn varieties of popcorn because they have a lot of added sugar. If you prefer your popcorn to be on the sweeter side, you can sprinkle a dash of stevia or artificial sweetener on it to give it a little sweetness without adding any sugar.
- Oregon State University: “Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load for 100+ Foods”
- Harvard Health: “The Lowdown on Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load”
- USDA: “Snacks, Popcorn, Air-Popped”
- USDA: “Is Popcorn a Healthy Snack? It Can Be!”
- NCBI: Advances in Nutrition: “Snack Food, Satiety, and Weight”
- NCBI: Journal of Education and Health Promotion: “The Prevention and Control of Type-2 diabetes by Changing Lifestyle and Dietary Pattern”
- NCBI: Antioxidants: “Analysis of Popcorn (Zea Mays L. var. Everta) for Antioxidant Capacity and Total Phenolic Content”
- University of Arkansas: “The Exchange List System for Diabetic Meal Planning”