Is Popcorn Healthy?
Can a snack food as delicious as popcorn be healthy?
Just the smell of popcorn can evoke great sensory anticipation. It could mean a movie is about to start, or that friends are on their way over, or that it’s almost snack time at the beach or amusement park. We start thinking about the earthy, salty taste and the satisfying crunch popcorn makes in the mouth. When there’s popcorn popping, something good is happening. We know that popcorn is an affordable and undeniably tasty snack, but is popcorn healthy? As with most foods, making a blanket statement to answer that question is indeed problematic.
While some popcorn does have plentiful health benefits with few downsides, many kinds of popcorn (e.g. movie butter popcorn) are dripping with saturated fats, artificial flavorings, and hydrogenated oils (trans fats).
Whether or not popcorn is actually health for you comes down to a few things, including method of preparation, added ingredients, and ingredient quality. Read more about how popcorn is prepared at The Popcorn Board’s website.
Popcorn on its own does not offer a whole lot in terms of nutrition, but it’s not necessarily bad for you either. A one cup serving of popped corn (not unpopped kernels) without any added fats or seasoning has just 31 calories and a trace amount of fat. It contains small amounts of protein, dietary fiber, and essential minerals like potassium and manganese. It won’t go far in satisfying your daily health requirements, but it also isn’t bad for you like other heavily processed or fat-laden, sugar-filled snacks.
The way popcorn is popped contributes much to its overall health value. For example, popcorn that is popped in commercial poppers (like those you might find at the movies or the zoo) is often prepared with trans-fats, which have been shown to be unhealthy for humans. Small amounts of coconut oil, olive oil, and even other vegetable-based oils are all better choices to make popcorn healthier when it’s popped at home. This can be done in a pot on a stovetop, or even in a regular brown paper bag in the microwave. Store-bought microwave popcorn, though, is perhaps the least healthy of your popcorn snacking options. This is due to the plastic bag linings, which breaks down from the heat and creates carcinogenic compounds. additionally, the chemical used to create the artificial butter flavor in microwave popcorn has been linked to lung disease when inhaled, Alzheimer’s Disease, and a handful of other negative health implications.
Popcorn’s appeal is largely based on its texture. While it has a pleasing enough flavor, it is pretty mild, so other ingredients are often added to it to make it tastier. Salt, of course, is a common one, and that’s fine, but if you’re watching your salt intake, it is a good idea to limit how much you add to your kernels. Butter is another favorite, and while a little bit is great, a lot added to popcorn increases the overall calories and fat. Popcorn fans looking for unique additions to their snack might try a drizzle of olive or coconut oil, a few shakes of a favorite seasoning blend (jerk seasoning is fabulous on popcorn), or even a little grated cheese like parmesan or romano. All of these will add lots of flavor to popcorn while limiting the amount of added calories, salt, and fat. To replicate the flavor of kettle corn, a small amount of both sugar and salt can be added to popcorn; these both add flavor but detract from health value. Of course, caramel is also very tasty on popcorn, but it adds significant amounts of sugar and fat, making caramel corn not very good for you at all. For a full-on flavor blast, a few tablespoons of nutritional yeast on freshly-popped popcorn is hard to beat. Available in most health food stores, nutritional yeast has a nutty, cheesy flavor that complements popcorn extremely well and lots of B Vitamins, yet has relatively very few calories.
One concern among people who pay attention to their health is whether or not their food is organic, meaning grown without synthetic chemicals or genetic engineering. A great deal of corn available in the US is genetically modified and sprayed with all manner of pesticides; consumers who wish to avoid foods grown and produced in this manner would do best to purchase organic popcorn. While there is no conclusive evidence that non-organic growing methods are detrimental to human health, some studies point to negative health effects caused by pesticides and genetically modified foods.
Ultimately, the question of whether or not popcorn is healthy has a little to do with the popcorn itself but more to do with how it is prepared and what is added to it. While some people do enjoy plain air-popped popcorn on its own with nothing added, the reality is that popcorn is often prepared with one type of fat or another and then seasoned with more fat and salt. However, there are good choices for seasoning popcorn that will not detract from its nutritional value; some, like nutritional yeast, may even add some health benefits along with flavor. But most people eat popcorn for the sheer enjoyment of it — it’s the food that often accompanies entertainment in our lives. In moderation, though, even with some less healthy additions, popcorn is often a healthier snack choice than some of the other items offered by movie theatres and food vendors.