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Popcorn is a a crowd favorite snack, both in and outside of the movie theater, but some people might be confused as to whether popcorn is considered healthy.
It’s true, popcorn is a whole grain, and as many cyclists know, whole grains are a preferred source of carbs. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you can fuel your rides and your recovery with just any bag—popcorn calories, as well as its nutritional benefits can vary widely depending on how the grain gets made.
That’s why we tapped Lizzie Kasparek, MS, RD, CSSD, a sports dietitian, to find out if popcorn is truly a healthy snack.
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Popcorn Calories and Other Nutrition Facts
Whole grains—oatmeal, barley, brown rice, teff, and yes, corn, to name a few—are rich in vitamins, minerals, and some even offer a little protein. Grains are also high in fiber, which has been proven to keep your heart healthy, help you maintain a healthy weight, and promote a healthy GI tract.
“Athletes, especially cyclists, need the basis of their diet to be carbohydrates,” Kasparek says. “And the majority of those carbohydrates come from whole grains.”
Popcorn is also a type of corn that’s not highly processed, Kasparek explains. “The less processing there is, the more nutrients are intact in the grain,” she says.
Popcorn, it turns out, also has a high level of polyphenols, a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to help protect against cancer. A study found popcorn contains up to 300 mg of polyphenols per serving, compared with 114 mg per serving of sweet corn and 160 mg per serving for all fruits.
But when it comes to the nutritional value of your popcorn, it really depends on how it’s cooked and what you put on it.
If you look at a no-frills bag of pre-popped popcorn, you get a lot of bang for your buck. (Or, dare we say, penny for your pop.) Popcorn is what Kasparek calls a “high-volume food,” meaning you can eat quite a bit for very few calories. Let’s take a look at the nutrition for a serving of pre-popped sea salt popcorn and a serving of microwave sea salt popcorn.
Pre-Popped Sea Salt Popcorn:
- Serving size: 4 cups
- Calories: 140 calories
- Fat: 7 g
- Sodium: 130 mg
- Carbohydrates: 19 g
- Fiber: 4 g
- Sugar: 0 g
Microwave Sea Salt Popcorn:
- Serving size: 3.5 cups, popped
- Calories: 170 calories
- Fat: 10 g
- Sodium: 250 mg
- Carbohydrates: 20 g
- Fiber: 3 g
- Sugar: 0 g
The ingredients list, Kasparek says, should be short: popcorn, oil, and salt.
The type of oil also matters, when it comes to the health benefits of your popcorn, she says, recommending coconut oil—which, if you’re making your own on the stovetop, has a higher smoke point. The worst kind of oil is partially hydrogenated oil, which is a type of trans fat.
The Nutritional Breakdown of Other Types of Popcorn
Once you start straying from the unprocessed whole grain, sprinkled with some salt, you start to miss out on many of the health perks. “The biggest mistake you can make [with popcorn] is buying fun flavors,” Kasparek says.
She points out that a serving of a sweet-flavored popcorn like kettle corn may have the same number of calories as the butter-and-salt variety, but the serving size goes from four cups to two. And you may be adding 8 grams of added sugar to your snack. “If it’s a sweet flavor, we’re adding added sugar, and that’s not necessarily where we want our sugar to come from,” she says.
As for movie theater popcorn calories? The portion sizes (huge), “butter,” and heavy amounts of salt, make it highly caloric and can offset the fact that you’re eating a (healthy) whole grain.
According to MyFitnessPal, a small popcorn, without butter, has 225 calories with 11 grams of fat. A large, without butter, clocks in at a whopping 1,030 calories and 41 grams of fat. To reiterate, that’s without butter. And the butter used on movie theater popcorn isn’t actually butter; it’s a partially hydrogenated soybean oil (a trans fat), beta carotene for coloring, tertiary Butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) as a synthetic preservative, polydimethylsiloxane to prevent foaming, and butter flavoring.
That said, it doesn’t mean you have to forego your favorite cinema snack, Kasparek says. Order the smallest size available and don’t add any extra salt or butter. Or better yet, pop your own at home and bring it along with you.
If you’re looking to snack at home, stock up on some of these healthy versions below, which feature simple ingredients and limited to no butter, flavorings, salt.
The Bottom Line on Popcorn
With minimal, good-for-you ingredients, popcorn is an excellent snack that’s high in whole grains, minerals, vitamins, and flavor that will also keep you feeling full.
Your best bet is to pop your own on the stovetop, where you have control over the type and quantity of the ingredients add to it, Kasparek says. She recommends cooking with coconut oil and adding a dash of sea salt and Parmesan cheese if you prefer a savory snack. For something sweeter, try sprinkling cinnamon over your popcorn and mixing with a handful of cacao chips.
“Sometimes we get snack fatigue and need to think outside the box,” she says. “[You can also] try a popcorn trail mix with almonds.” Herbs like rosemary go a long way, too, for adding flavor without all the bad stuff.
Just remember: This doesn’t mean convenient popcorn is off-limits, she says. Simply read the labels, choosing simple ingredients without added sugar or artificial flavors.
Heather is the former food and nutrition editor for Runner’s World, the author of The Runner’s World Vegetarian Cookbook, and a seven-time marathoner with a best of 3:31—but she is most proud of her 1:32 half, 19:44 5K, and 5:33 mile. Her work has been published in The Boston Globe, Popular Mechanics, The Wall Street Journal Buy Side, Cooking Light, CNN, Glamour, The Associated Press, and Livestrong.com.