How Healthy Is Popcorn?

Popcorn in bowl
A small bowl of popcorn on a table (Image: daffodilred/iStock/Getty Images)

Plain air-popped popcorn is a healthy, low-calorie snack. Most commercial varieties include added salt, butter and oil, making this into a snacking don’t. Before reaching for your next popcorn snack, consider the dietary implications of the type you choose.

Nutrients

Popcorn is a whole grain with 1 gram of fiber per cup. Air-popped popcorn also contains a small amount of some B vitamins, which help with energy production. Popcorn provides a number of minerals, including magnesium, phosphorus, iron, zinc and manganese.

Calories and Fat

One cup of air-popped popcorn has just 31 calories and 0 grams of fat. Oil-popped popcorn has more fat and calories per cup, at 3 grams and 55 calories. Traditional butter-flavored microwave popcorn contains about 42 calories and 2 grams of fat per cup. If you are watching your calorie intake, air-popped popcorn is the best option as you get the nutrients and fiber in popcorn, with added fat and salt.

Movie Popcorn

Movie popcorn is not a healthy option, however. Medium popcorn servings at major chains contain between nine and 20 cups of popcorn and 590 to 1,200 calories. Many movie theaters still pop corn in coconut oil, meaning a medium has between 33 and 60 grams of saturated fat. Movie theater popcorn is also high in sodium, with as much as 980 milligrams per medium serving.

Considerations

Some microwave versions of popcorn contain trans fats in the form of partially hydrogenated fats. Trans fats are particularly bad for your health as they both increase your levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol while lowering your levels of "good" HDL cholesterol. If you choose microwave popcorn, look for brands with no hydrogenated oils. Packaged popcorn flavored with caramel or cheese is usually high in calories with added sodium and sugar.

Suggestions

Dress up plain, air-popped popcorn with healthy ingredients. Spray with olive oil and sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese or chili powder and a dash of sea salt. You can also sprinkle nutritional yeast, a vegan source of vitamin B-12, over the popcorn for a cheese-like flavor. Make air-popped popcorn into a modest-calorie sweet treat by mixing a cup with 1 tablespoon mini chocolate chips and 1 tablespoon dried cranberries.

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