Is Popcorn Healthy? Here's a Nutritionist's Take
Once considered an indulgent movie theater treat, popcorn is now seen as a good-for-you snack choice. But is popcorn actually healthy? The answer is that it depends on the oil used to pop it, any seasonings added, and possibly the corn kernels themselves.
First, consider the corn
Corn (even in its popped form) is a whole grain, and whole grains are an important source of key vitamins, minerals, fiber, and disease-fighting antioxidants. Whole grains are filling too, because they include the entire grain—unlike refined grains, which have been stripped of their fiber and nutrients. Research suggests that whole grain intake is tied to a longer life, less inflammation, and a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Three daily servings of whole grains has even been linked to a lower BMI and less belly fat.
But one thing to think about is whether your popcorn came from a genetically-modified crop. Some scientists and health professionals are concerned about the potential risks of eating GMO foods, which aren’t well studied. If you prefer to avoid GMOs, look for kernels or popcorn that’s USDA Certified Organic (which means it does not contain GMOs), or products with the "Non-GMO Project Verified" label.
RELATED: 18 Health Benefits of Whole Grains
When you're choosing a brand of packaged popcorn, scope out the oil listed with the ingredients. The best oils are heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), specifically avocado oil and extra virgin olive oil.
Oils that are higher in omega-6 fatty acids—such as corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and cottonseed oil—tend to be pro-inflammatory. (For more on the risks of eating too many omega-6s, read this explainer.)
One of the perks of making your own popcorn on the stove is that you can use a high-MUFA oil; or air-pop it—with a hot air popper, or in a paper bag in the microwave—and then mist it with a healthy oil. You can also find microwave popcorn that doesn't contain any oil, such as Quinn's Just Sea Salt and Organic Popcorn.
Finally, consider the additives in your snack. In packaged popcorn, the seasonings might be simple as sea salt and black pepper. Or the ingredients might include conventional dairy ingredients, such as butter and cheese that isn't grass-fed or organic. Some popcorns are seasoned with sugar or other sweeteners (think kettle corn). Before you dig in, check to see exactly what's in the bag.
If you are DIY-ing your popcorn, you can get creative with healthful toppings, like preservative-free dried fruit, nuts or seeds, Italian or chipotle seasoning, turmeric and black pepper, or cinnamon and cocoa powder. A homemade version also allows you to control how much salt you add.
RELATED: 10 Healthy Flavored Popcorn Recipes
The bottom line
Popcorn can be a healthy snack, but the nutritional quality varies considerably. I always go with organic or non-GMO popcorns made with extra virgin olive or avocado oil, and seasoned with sea salt or pink Himalayan salt. Two of my favorite bags are Pop Art's Hawaiian Black Sea Salt Gourmet Popcorn and G.H. Cretors Popcorn with Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
If you prefer more indulgent varieties of popcorn, make them occasional treats rather than daily staples. And be aware of portion sizes. A serving size of popcorn is typically three to three and a half cups, but it’s easy to polish off a full-sized bag in one sitting. And that could be the carb equivalent of eating five slices of bread. Plus, the extra sodium may cause fluid retention that triggers bloating.
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Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.