Is Popcorn Healthy?

By Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN

Q: Popcorn is presented as both a healthy and an unhealthy snack, depending on who you ask. Is it good for me?

A: You are correct, popcorn is sometimes healthy and sometimes not at all.  In it’s more natural form, the answer is, yes, it is healthy.

Popcorn is a whole-grain, fiber-rich food, so you digest the carbs slowly and steadily. It’s also very low in calories (especially compared to many other snack foods). More benefits: It contains free radical-fighting antioxidants and tryptophan, an amino acid important for sleep. (If you’re noshing while watching Netflix before bed, that may be just the right snack.)

One study found that the presence of antioxidants in popcorn kernels actually increases during digestion when the kernels are popped versus in their raw form. So popping popcorn isn’t only fun, you can think of it as a science experiment to get more nutritional benefits out of your snack! 

The high phenolic acid content, specifically ferulic acid and o-coumaric contribute to the high antioxidant activity in popcorn. Ferulic acid has also been shown to help support healthy and glowing skin.

RELATED: 10 Foods That Help You Sleep

Now, time for the caveats. (Sorry!)

The Problem With: Movie Theater Popcorn

While the kernels themselves may be nutritious, your local theater likely pops its corn using a lot of unhealthy, low-quality oil and pours on the salt (and that’s before you add the “butter” sauce that’s generally made with artificial ingredients).

In fact, a report done by Center for Science in the Public Interest found that at some theaters, a medium bucket contained up to 1200 calories, 60g of saturated fat, and 1500mg of sodium. (Time to start smuggling in that bag of almonds and dark chocolate, right?) 

The Problem With: Microwave Popcorn

Now, to the popular microwave variety. Many brands use crappy hydrogenated oils like palm oil and artificial flavors and preservatives. There are also concerns with chemicals used in the bags’ glue and ink (some of which have mostly been phased out, like diacetyl). When heated to high temperatures, you may be taking some of those in, especially in the vapor that escapes when you first open the bag.

One chemical in particular, PFOA, has been linked to cancer and birth defects in animals. To be clear: There are no studies that show there is a direct link between microwave popcorn bags that contain trace amounts of PFOA and an increased risk of cancer in humans. Our take is: If you can avoid questionable chemicals in your food, why wouldn’t you?

How to Eat Healthy Popcorn

Here’s how to make that happen: Buy plain kernels that are preferably organic (since most corn is now the GMO variety that’s grown with lots of pesticides).

Then, pop them on the stovetop or with a popcorn machine with a small amount of a healthy oil like coconut or olive, or use grass-fed butter or ghee.

Want even more flavor? Sprinkle on a little parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast, cinnamon, sea salt, pepper, or cayenne for an amped-up experience that is sure to make any movie more enjoyable. Adding spices can boost the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory profile of this favorite snack. 

About Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN
Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN, is a renowned celebrity nutritionist, healthy cooking expert, and wellness thought-leader. She is the founder and CEO of Nutritious Life and The Nutritious Life Studio, an online certification that provides unparalleled, forward-thinking education to individuals of various backgrounds looking to establish successful careers in the health and wellness industry.

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