It's mid-afternoon and you're feeling snackish, but you don't want to destroy your diet — what about that unclaimed bag of Smartfood popcorn you eyed in the break room? Probably not a smart choice. While air-popped popcorn can be healthy, pre-packaged popcorn is often high in fat, sodium and sugar.
Smartfood popcorn is a better choice than other popular snacks, but it does contain sugar, artificial flavors and large amounts of sodium. Make popocorn at home instead to cut calories, sugar and saturated fat.
Is Smartfood Actually Smart?
Since 1985, consumers have been snatching the iconic black Smartfood bag off store shelves and riding off into the snacking sunset. A union of crunchy, chewy, air-popped popcorn and sharp white cheddar — what's not to love?
Then new flavors were introduced — movie theater butter, cheddar and caramel, sour cream and onion, salty kettle corn and buffalo. Smartfood claims the flavor combos are developed by geniuses — hence the reference to "smart" in the brand name. However, it's possible that it's also a skillful marketing ploy to make consumers think they're making a better choice.
But a look at the ingredients list and nutrition facts label reveals the truth. One serving of the original white cheddar popcorn recipe, which is 2 1/2 cups, has 160 calories, more than half of which come from 10 grams of fat.
It also has 240 milligrams of sodium, which is 10 percent of the maximum daily amount recommended for adults, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Too much sodium increases your blood pressure and may contribute to heart disease and stroke.
Read more: 15 Reasons to Kick Sugar
Saturated Fat and Sugar
The white cheddar flavor is actually fairly healthy compared to other varieties. Caramel and cheddar Smartfood popcorn contains butter, corn syrup, brown sugar, salt and artificial coloring. One serving is smaller — only one and a half cups — but it still has 140 calories and 8 grams of fat. Three grams of that total is saturated fat, the kind that raises your bad cholesterol.
The caramel and cheddar flavor also has 6 grams of added sugar per serving. Sweet and salty kettle corn Smartfood has 12 grams of added sugar.
According to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in April 2014, there is a significant relationship between added sugars and the risk of death from heart disease. Not to mention that added sugars cause weight gain, and excess weight is linked to a variety of health problems, including type II diabetes and some types of cancer.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting your intake of saturated fat to less than 6 percent of your total calories. If you eat 2,000 calories per day, that's about 13 grams. But less is better.
The same goes for added sugar, which the AHA says should be limited to no more than 100 calories per day for women and 150 calories per day for men. Sugar has 4 calories per gram, so that's a daily limit of 37 grams for men and 25 grams for women. One serving of sweet and salty kettle corn Smartfood would provide one-third to nearly one-half of that amount.
Read more: 10 Ways to De-Junk Your Diet
Smarter Snacking Options
Smartfood popcorn isn't the worst snack you could reach for, but it definitely isn't the best. Packaged foods, in general, aren't healthy options. If you have a craving for crunchy popcorn, pop your own healthy snack from whole corn kernels you can buy in the bulk section at your local grocery store.
Use a little bit of a healthy oil with a moderately high smoke point, such as avocado oil. To keep it healthy, avoid adding butter or salt after cooking. Instead, try different combinations of spices, such as cumin and paprika, or cinnamon and cayenne.
Note that, while popcorn is low in calories at 90 calories per a 3-cup portion according to USDA data, it's fairly high in carbs, at more than 18 grams per portion. If you're feeling daring, try shaking up your popcorn up with a little nutritional yeast, which has a rich, cheesy flavor you just might mistake for cheddar in a blind taste test — and it's chock-full of B vitamins, too.
- Smartfood: "Our Story"
- Smartfood: "Smartfood® White Cheddar Popcorn"
- American Heart Association: "How Much Sodium Should I Eat per Day?"
- Smartfood: "Smartfood® Caramel & Cheddar Mix Flavored Popcorn"
- Smartfood: "Smartfood® Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn Flavored Popcorn"
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults"
- American Diabetes Association: "Know the Diabetes-Cancer Link"
- American Heart Association: "Added Sugar"
- American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat"
- USDA: "Large Flake Nutritional Yeast"
- Mayo Clinic: "Which Type of Oil Should I Use for Cooking With High Heat?"
- USDA: "Snacks, Popcorn, Air-Popped (Unsalted)"
- USDA: "How Many Calories Are in One Gram of Fat, Carbohydrate, or Protein?"