Some foods out there are just a mystery to most people, with popcorn making one of the top slots on that list. Various sources tout popcorn as a low-calorie, healthy snack, while others refer to it like it’s simply poisonous. So is popcorn healthy?
The answer, like most things, is not as straightforward as a simple label. The type of corn used to create popcorn is never a GMO food (awesome!), but it’s often laden with pesticides (no!). Certain types of popcorn contain an entire day’s worth of calories in one bucket (I’m looking at you, movie theaters), and others have a relatively small calorie count for such a filling treat.
So is popcorn healthy? Again, the answer is not so cut and dry. Popcorn nutrition, in fact, does have some positives to offer you, especially because of its high fiber and manganese content, but these benefits are all strictly related to only one specific type of popcorn, which I explain below.
Don’t worry — if you’re in love with popcorn, you aren’t going to leave disappointed. However, you may change your methods once you understand the truth about popcorn.
Is Popcorn Healthy? Yes and No
Is popcorn healthy? It really depends on what kind of popcorn we’re talking about.
In 2009, the Center for Science in the Public Interest broke the news on the real calorie and fat content of movie theater popcorn. Based on their own nutritional analysis, the researchers found that a medium popcorn at the movies contains 1,200 calories and 60 grams of fat. (1) This is the amount of calories and fat that many people should consume in a whole day.
Many experts began recommending that people bring their own microwave (i.e., calorie-controlled) popcorn to the movie theater instead. Although this may be a better choice in terms of fat and calorie content, unfortunately microwave popcorn contains chemicals that may be equally as dangerous to your health.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that the bags used for microwave popcorn are coated with a chemical that breaks down into perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a cancer-causing agent. (2) PFOA, also found in nonstick cookware, release toxins once it’s heated. Approximately 95 percent of Americans have PFOA in their bodies, and it remains there for a long time. PFOA has been associated with toxicity in the liver, prostate and kidney, and it’s been connected to tumor growth. It can also affect growth and development in children and cause damage to the reproductive system. (3)
Also in 2009, several U.S. companies made a voluntary agreement with the EPA to remove all PFOAs from their products by 2015, which they have now done. All data regarding this agreement, known as the Toxic Substances Control Act, can be found on the EPA’s website. (4)
The fake butter flavoring on popcorn has also been found to be problematic to health. The flavoring contains a chemical called diacetyl, which has been shown to cause a specific type of respiratory disease, called cryptogenic organizing pneumonia (COP), in workers who frequently work with this chemical. Generally, diacetyl is only a problem when it’s breathed in at large quantities, but experts are still uncertain that consumers can’t be affected by it.
There have been a few cases of consumers who have been diagnosed with COP (previously referred to as bronchiolitis obliterans), but generally those people consumed (and breathed in) large amounts of popcorn daily. Consumer concern has led several of the major popcorn manufacturers to remove diacetyl from their products, with this removal dating as far back as 2007.
For all of these reasons, popcorn is on my list of health foods you should never eat. So much of it is definitely harmful to your health and is to be avoided, due in part to the following poisonous pitfalls lurking:
How to Make Popcorn Healthy
Judging by all this info, the answer to the question is popcorn healthy certainly seems to be no. For the most part, that’s true, but not always.
But if you’re interested in trying one of the healthier options at home, you can air pop your own. There are plain, organic varieties to purchase at most health food stores that allow you to enjoy the popcorn nutrition of a decent amount of fiber and manganese in a low-calorie snack — just make sure not to cover it with sugar or pasteurized butter, or you may just find yourself back at square one.
Here are some instructions for air-popping your own homemade popcorn:
- Purchase plain, organic popcorn kernels at a local natural foods store.
- Use a healthy oil (coconut oil or organic butter work great) and pour 3 tablespoons into a heavy stainless steel pan.
- Put two kernels in the pan and wait until one pops, then pour 1/3 cup of popcorn in the pan and cover it.
- As it pops, make sure you shake the pan to allow the steam to escape and prevent the popcorn from burning.
- Remove from the pan when the popping stops and season as desired. (Some great toppings include nutritional yeast, garlic powder and cayenne pepper.)
Another way you can say, “yes,” to the question is popcorn healthy is to detox your popcorn. Just follow the instructions below:
1. High in Antioxidants to Fight Free Radical Damage
In 2012, professor Joe Vinson, Ph.D., of the University of Scranton published a study on the nutritive value of popcorn he completed with an undergraduate chemistry major, Michael G. Coco. The study was posted far and wide by virtually every news agency and nutrition website on the planet, with the headline “Popcorn has more antioxidants than fruit, study says.” (5)
Vinson and Coco discovered that a serving of popcorn contains 300 milligrams of antioxidants known as polyphenols, almost doubling the 160 grams found in one serving of most fruit. They explained this by demonstrating that the polyphenols in fruit are more widely distributed within the water in fruit (up to 90 percent in some products), whereas popcorn contains only 4 percent water and, therefore, a higher concentration of polyphenols.
But don’t go emptying your cabinets of fruit and replacing it with popcorn just yet.
Even Vinson pointed out in his original paper that popcorn could not, in any way, replace fruits and vegetables in a healthy diet. Even with a high presence of antioxidants, popcorn doesn’t contain many of the vital minerals that we receive from eating fruits and veggies.
The study also didn’t delve much into the bioavailability of these antioxidants, which are found in the largest quantities in the hull of popcorn — you know, that part you spend a few days digging out of the teeth where it got stuck. Why does bioavailability matter? Because it’s possible that the enzymes in the human body responsible for breaking down food during digestion and absorbing the good stuff don’t actually break down popcorn in such a way to allow us to get all of the antioxidants it contains. (6)
All skepticism aside, it’s definitely good news that popcorn does contain antioxidants. Polyphenols are important in the right quantities and can protect the body against a number of diseases. (7) They can be considered antinutrients that interfere with the body’s ability to digest food, but for the most part, the discovery is a positive one — just make sure that you only use plain, organic popcorn rather than the nasty bagged stuff.
2. Provides a Significant Amount of Fiber
One serving of popcorn contains 16 percent of your daily recommended fiber intake, which is impressive considering there are only 93 calories in one serving. It’s incredibly important to eat a high-fiber diet for many reasons: Fiber helps protect the heart, aids in digestion and can even help prevent diabetes.
That fiber brings the “net carbs” down for popcorn, so while it’s not exactly an approved snack for the keto diet food list, it’s certainly not nearly as high carb as chips or tortilla chips.
3. Filling, Healthy Snack that Can Aid in Weight Loss
When you think of quick and easy snacks, what might be some of the first things that come to mind? Potato chips? Cookies? Crackers?
For many people, snacking on high-calorie, overly processed foods is the norm. They often find that these foods aren’t filling and don’t ever completely satisfy the craving that led to snacking in the first place.
This is one place where organic, air-popped popcorn nutrition can come in handy. Popcorn is a much more filling snack than potato chips, according to a study done in Florida in 2012. Researchers found that popcorn would go a long way in helping reduce hunger cravings for those trying to eat less on their weight loss journeys. (8)
Just remember, there are several ways to healthily lose weight fast, so don’t depend solely on curbing your appetite.
The presence of fiber in popcorn also makes it a potential aid to weight loss. High-fiber foods help not only to keep you feeling full, but to maintain a healthy weight. High-fiber diets are associated with lower body weight and a healthier overall diet. (9)
4. It’s Never Made from Genetically Modified Corn (for Now)
By now, you’ve probably heard the statistics on genetically modified corn. Almost 90 percent of the corn in the U.S. is genetically modified. Once considered a positive choice, it’s now understood that GMO foods are linked to allergies, tumors and even early death.
Good news, though — the subspecies of corn used in popcorn is not part of that 90 percent and is, as of now, never genetically modified. According to Jeffery Smith of the Institute for Responsible Technology, the popcorn seed is never genetically modified. (10)
However, some sources claim popcorn is still very much susceptible to pesticide residue, so you should always attempt to purchase it in a certified organic form.
5. Supports the Growth of Healthy Bones
Because popcorn contains a significant amount of manganese, it’s one good source of nutrition that can help you build and maintain dense, healthy bones. Manganese is a known supplemental nutrient that helps support bone structure (especially in people susceptible to weak bones, such as menopausal women) and protect against osteoporosis, arthritis and osteoarthritis.
Corn was domesticated in Mexico over 9,000 years ago and continues to be one of the leading vegetables produced each year throughout the world. Popcorn as a snack has been discovered in Mexico in archaeological sites dating back to 3600 B.C., and unsubstantiated claims say that Squanto himself taught European settlers how to pop corn during the growth of North America.
The history of popcorn is not entirely documented, but it seems that its popularity soared in the United States first in the Great Lakes region where the Iroquois people settled in large numbers. The first reliable sources to actually refer to “popped corn” date back to about 1820, and records from the mid-1800s name popcorn as a popular family treat. (11)
In the 1890s, popcorn received another boost in demand, thanks to candy store owner Charles Cretors. In an attempt to better roast nuts for sale at his store in commercial quantities, he created the first ever commercial-grade popcorn popper, later displaying it in a horse-and-buggy style design. During this decade, Cracker Jack was introduced as a sugary snack featuring — you guessed it — popcorn.
Then came the early 20th century, when the occurrence of popcorn in a movie theater began to become normal. Street salesmen, known as “hawkers,” would come to sell individual bags of popcorn within movie theaters. At first, theater owners were resistant to this idea, but that all changed during the Great Depression. (12)
Because of its low cost and enjoyable flavor, popcorn was the one snack food for which sales went up, not down, during this Depression. Theater owners changed perspective, seeing that it was a minimally priced luxury item that moviegoers would actually spare change to buy. The first theater owner to remodel theaters to actually install popcorn machines in the lobby area was Glen W. Dickson in 1938. His chain of theaters throughout the Midwest quickly earned back the significant money they had spent on remodeling within a short time after installing the machines.
Risks and Side Effects
As with all foods, popcorn may encourage an allergic reaction in some individuals. Be aware of any allergy symptoms that arise immediately after consuming popcorn, such as swollen mouth or difficulty breathing.
Popcorn is also on a list of foods that commonly irritate symptoms of people with inflammatory bowel disease. (13) If you suffer from a condition involving inflammation of your digestive tract, steer clear of this snack food.
- Is popcorn healthy? The answer depends on a lot. Popcorn is a tricky food to nail down because it’s available in so many disparate forms. However, organic, air-popped popcorn offers a bit of significant nutrition.
- Theater popcorn is notoriously high in calories and offers little to no nutritious value. One report found that a medium-sized bucket at one popular chain contained enough calories to feed a person for a whole day — without most of the important vitamins and minerals they need.
- Microwavable popcorn may seem better at first glance — after all, it has far fewer calories per serving — but the chemicals often found in the packaging, plus the added flavors, sweeteners and butter products usually included, neutralize any positive value it may have had before.
- The best option for eating popcorn is to purchase plain, organic kernels and air pop them yourself.
- Popcorn contains a significant antioxidant load in the form of phenols, although it’s unclear how much of these are absorbed by the body.
- This snack is high in fiber and is filling, making it a low-calorie alternative to many other junk food snacks.
- The manganese in popcorn means it can help to support the growth and maintenance of healthy bones.
- Popcorn is made from a seed that is never genetically modified, though pesticide contamination is still a big issue if you buy in non-organic forms.