Popcorn is a universally loved snack, but depending on the toppings you put on it, it might not be the best thing for your health. Movie popcorn is probably best eaten sparingly, but not to worry — you can still enjoy popcorn that's flavorful and nutritious if you use the right seasonings.
That's right: Popcorn can be flavored with your health in mind, and it doesn't have to be boring. In fact, plain popcorn is a low-sodium plant-based food that counts as a whole grain. Whole grains like popcorn give us important nutrients, like fiber and antioxidants, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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As far as snack foods go, popcorn is a nutritional winner as long as it's prepared without tons of fat, salt or sugar.
If you're between making air-popped versus oil-popped popcorn, go for air-popped, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
If you don't have an air-popper, popping the kernels in a covered microwave-safe container also works well. Or, you can pop your corn in a covered pot on the stove.
Avoid seasoning your popcorn before popping. Add dry seasonings to popped popcorn while it's still hot.
How Do You Get Seasonings to Stick to Popcorn?
When you go to the movies and order a bucket of popcorn, you may think the flavor comes from butter and salt, but that might not actually be the case. Many movie theaters use a flavoring called Flavacol, which is a combination of salt (lots of it), yellow food dye and "artificial butter" flavoring (whatever that means), according to What the Popcorn.
Oil is another common ingredient in popcorn. Movie theaters like AMC use canola oil. Similarly, microwave and air-popped popcorn products you buy at the grocery store may have some kind of oil (butter or canola oil, usually), though there are some that don't.
And the reason is simple: Liquids like butter and oil don't just add flavor to your popcorn, but they also help the seasonings stick to it.
If you're air-popping your own oil-free version at home, for example, you might find it difficult to make seasonings stick to popcorn. Without some kind of liquid adhesive, powdery seasonings like salt, pepper, herbs and spices and cheese tend to fall right off the dry kernels and sink to the bottom of the bowl.
But rest assured, not all hope is lost. Flavorful, delicious popcorn that's not doused in fat, sugar and salt can be yours if you follow the tips below.
Things You'll Need
Morter and pestle, food processer or spice grinder (if you're grinding your own spices)
Spices of choice (try dried herbs, finely-grated cheese, sea salt and pepper for savory popcorn, or opt for cinnamon, cocoa powder or honey for a sweet snack)
Oil or butter, if using
Water, if not using oil
If you're adding butter to your popcorn, you can make it more nutritious by melting the butter and putting it in a food mister. Pouring straight butter onto your popcorn will oversaturate it and make it soggy, and will add a significant amount of saturated fat to your snack.
It's best to spray the kernels with butter before you pop, as this will lessen the chance of soggy popcorn. You can add the butter to already popped popcorn, too. Just hold the spray bottle further from the popcorn to avoid oversaturating, and toss it in a bowl to coat.
Using a food mister will help you use less butter and will also help your seasonings to stick.
Just as with butter, you don't want to oversaturate popcorn in oil, even if it's a "healthy" oil like olive oil. Even though more nutritious cooking oils aren't high in saturated fat, they're still high in calories, so you'll want to mindful about portions.
Plus, as we mentioned, the fluffy kernels will absorb all that oil and become soggy, and no one wants soggy popcorn!
Follow the same instructions as you would with butter, spraying the kernels before cooking if possible. You can spray popped popcorn with oil, just avoid over-saturating and do it when the popcorn is still hot.
Without Oil or Butter (Air-Popped Popcorn)
As we mentioned, you're probably not going to have much luck getting dry, powdery spices to stick to dry, air-popped popcorn. If you don't want to use oil or butter, other liquids like hot sauce, vinegar, lime juice, honey and coconut nectar can also work.
Or, if you want something as simple as it gets, a sprinkling of plain water will do the trick, too.
You'll want to pour your liquid into a spray bottle, again, to avoid a soggy end result. This is unless, of course, you're using honey or coconut nectar, in which case you'll want to heat the liquid in a pot and drizzle over your freshly-popped popcorn... yum.
Liquids other than oil and butter are best added to hot, popped popcorn.
Besides choosing the right wet and dry ingredients, there are a few top tips that can help ensure you end up with a delicious snack:
- Flavor your popcorn with dry seasonings after it's popped, but while it's still hot.
- Toss the popcorn in a large bowl to evenly distribute seasoning, prevent over-saturation and avoid making it soggy.
- Try different combinations of seasonings, thinking about flavors you prefer in other meals and snacks.
Healthy Popcorn Seasoning Flavors
Adding your own popcorn seasoning, ideally to fresh hot popcorn, is the next step to creating a snack that is both yummy and nutricious.
As for the best way to salt air-popped popcorn, less is probably better for you, per the USDA. They suggest trying a mixture of dried herbs such as basil and oregano with just the tiniest dash of salt. If you're adding fat, choose olive oil or coconut oil instead of butter.
For a sweeter flavor without any added sugar, try cinnamon or a dusting of cocoa powder.
Popcorn Recipes to Try
There are so many seasoned popcorn recipes out there to try. If you're looking for a savory flavor, go for our:
- Mexican-Inspired Popcorn: It's flavored with a touch of honey and spices and then topped with feta and cilantro, making a great shared appetizer.
- Herb Lovers' Popcorn: It's light, nutritious and full of flavor thanks to antioxidant rich olive oil and herbs like rosemary.
- Grecian-inspired Popcorn: It's full of vibrant flavor thanks to citrusy lemon peel and fresh dill, and you'll only get 221 calories in a serving.
- Sea Salt and Vinegar Popcorn: It's a great replacement for the high-fat, high-sodium potato chip version, with the same flavors you love, olive oil for antioxidants and unsaturated fats.
For those looking for a sweeter flavor, try our:
- Chocolate-Peanut Popcorn: There are only 94 calories in this popcorn snack, 1 gram of sugar and it gives you 10 grams of satiating protein!
- Sneaky Salted "Caramel" Popcorn: It has 77 calories per serving, and while it's higher in sugar, the sugar comes from coconut nectar, and there are no artificial flavoring like you'd find in a store-bought version.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Why You Should Think of Popcorn as a Health Food”
- USDA FoodData Central: “Popcorn, Air-Popped (No Butter or No Oil Added)”
- USDA FoodData Central: “Is Popcorn a Healthy Snack? It Can Be!”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “How to Avoid Portion Size Pitfalls to Manage Your Weight”
- USDA FoodData Central: "Cheese, Parmesan, Grated"
- AMC: AMC Theaters Nutrition Information