How Healthy Is Popcorn?

The snack can offer different nutrients like fiber and antioxidants.

By Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD

Though it’s usually considered a movie theater snack staple, popcorn is also seen as a good-for-you snack choice. But is popcorn actually healthy? The short answer is that it can be.

Popcorn does have some potential health benefits like providing you with some vitamins and minerals. There are also other ingredients that may add other nutrients to the food, like the oil used to pop it or any added seasonings. Read on to learn more.

Popcorn Nutrition

In general, a cup of unsalted, air-popped popcorn has the following:1

  • Calories: 30 calories
  • Fat: < 1 gram
  • Cholesterol: 0 milligrams
  • Sodium: < 1 milligram
  • Carbohydrates: 6.23 grams
  • Fiber: 1.21 grams
  • Protein: < 1 gram

Popcorn Health Benefits

Corn (even in its popped form) is a whole grain. Whole grains are an important source of key vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Corn in particular contains nutrients such as magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, B, and E.2

Whole grains are filling too because they include the entire grain—unlike refined grains, which have been stripped of their fiber and nutrients.34

Americans get 17% of their whole-grain consumption from popcorn. People who eat popcorn also consume more whole grains and fiber than individuals who don’t. Popcorn consumers may also have a 12% total intake of polyphenols, which are compounds that can have antioxidant properties.5

Additionally, research suggests that whole grain intake is tied to less inflammation and a lower risk of several health conditions:456

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Eating whole grains have even been linked to a lower body mass index (BMI) and less belly fat.7

Is Popcorn Healthy?

Popcorn, in its basic form, can be healthy on its own. One thing to note is portion sizes. The 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. Plus, the extra sodium may cause fluid retention that triggers bloating.

Also, the ingredients used in the popcorn-making or packaging process may create opportunities to get even more nutrients or benefits from the snack.

Learn the Types of Oil

When you’re choosing a brand of packaged popcorn, scope out the oil listed in the ingredients. Different oils can be used when making popcorn, including oils containing monounsaturated fats (MUFAs).

MUFAs are considered to be healthy fats.8 They have been linked to lowered risks of heart-related issues and weight management. MUFA oils include:9

  • Olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Sesame oil

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 healthy oil. You can also choose popcorn options that don’t use oil at all.

Pay Attention to the Seasonings

Various seasonings and toppings are used to flavor popcorn too. In packaged popcorn, the seasonings might be simple as sea salt and black pepper. Other ingredients might include conventional dairy ingredients, such as butter and cheese. More options, like kettle corn, are also seasoned with sugar or other sweeteners.

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However, if you are DIY-ing your popcorn, you can get creative with other toppings like:

  • Preservative-free dried fruit
  • Nuts or seeds
  • Italian or chipotle seasoning
  • Turmeric and black pepper
  • Cinnamon and cocoa powder
  • Nutritional yeast

Using these toppings might potentially increase the amount of certain nutrients that you consume. For example, nuts or spices can add to the antioxidant content of it.5 Also, homemade version also allows you to control how much salt you add.

A Quick Review

It can be a healthy snack. It’s a whole grain, so it may give you benefits, such as reducing your risk of chronic conditions like diabetes. However, the nutritional quality of popcorn can vary considerably depending on the ingredients used to make it. You may find added nutritional value in the oils, dairy, and other toppings, like dried fruit or cinnamon, you use for your popcorn.

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