The average American eats 45 quarts (that’s 180 cups) of popcorn every year, according to The Popcorn Board. It’s clear we have a collective love affair with this delicious, crunchy snack—but is it actually healthy?
“My answer is always that it depends,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.
Popcorn, which is made with a unique variety of corn, expands once heated thanks to the small amount of water inside each kernel. The heat eventually triggers it to explode. “Popcorn popped in a brown bag in the microwave without any oil, chemicals or salt is the purest form and the healthiest. Movie theater popcorn drowned in butter? That’s another story,” Harris-Pincus confirms.
If you’re wondering, “is microwave popcorn healthy?” The answer most often is a resounding yes, as long as the ingredient list is short. In fact, modern versions of microwave popcorn are often better for you than those you may have noshed on a decade ago.
“You may have read that diacetyl in microwave popcorn bag liners is carcinogenic,” Harris-Pincus says. “Most manufacturers have stopped using that chemical, but if you’re concerned, contact customer service for your favorite brand or pop it yourself on the stove or in a brown paper bag in the microwave.”
That movie theater popcorn, though, can have up to 1200 calories for a large bag, according to research from Center For Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). That’s because it’s often popped in plenty of coconut or canola oil, the mountain of corn often towers high above the top of the bag and each kernel is coated copiously in butter.
“All foods can be enjoyed in moderation, so if you rarely go to the movies and you long for buttered movie theater popcorn, have some. Just try to stick to a cup or two,” Harris-Pincus says.
Like many other foods that are nutritious in their most basic form, when we add excess sugar, salt, preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, we turn them into junk food, according to Laura Burak, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian and owner of Laura Burak Nutrition in Roslyn, New York.
“The best choice is any plain air popped or salted air popped popcorn with three ingredients at most: popcorn, salt and a small amount of oil—preferably olive, avocado, sunflower or coconut oil,” she says.
Now that you know the basics about this popular snack and which varieties are best for your body, here are 12 reasons to eat more of that three-ingredient-max popcorn recipe.
12 reasons to eat more popcorn
It’s low in calories.
Each cup of this poppable snack has just 31 calories per cup, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). If you’re the macro-counting type, 1 cup of popcorn has less than half a gram of fat, 1 gram of protein and 6 grams of carbs.
“If you prepare your own popcorn with nothing added, a 100-calorie serving—which starts with two tablespoons of kernels—is a wholesome snack with one ingredient,” Harris-Pincus says. For a store-bought snack with similar stats, try something like Skinny Pop Sea Salt ($3.99 for three 8.4-ounce bags,Amazon.com).
Popcorn packs in a good amount of fiber.
A serving is generally 2 to 3 cups, which offers 2 to 3 grams of fiber, per the USDA’s FoodData Central. That will give you a good start on reaching the 25 to 38 grams you need each day. This portion of plant foods that passes through your body undigested improves gut health, makes you feel fuller faster and makes bathroom trips more regular—and more comfortable.
“Foods rich in fiber slow digestion, fill you up, and have a myriad of other health benefits like lowering cholesterol when in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle,” Burak says.
Related: Eat Your Way to a Healthier Gut
It’s nearly sugar-free.
With just 0.07 grams of sugar per cup and zero added sugars, according to the USDA’s FoodData Central, popcorn is one snack that won’t lead to a blood sugar roller coaster. The result? A more steady energy level and fewer jittery feelings.
A serving will help you feel full fast…
Popcorn is Burak’s go-to munchie snack when a salty craving hits because you get more volume in this snack. That means “you can eat more, and still feel good about it,” she explains. “A serving of tortilla chips can be just seven chips! Not happening. There’s just something about a bowl of popcorn when you’re relaxing on the couch watching a movie and goodness knows we’ve done a lot of that this year.”
Science seconds this: A Nutrition Journal study found that compared to 1 cup of potato chips, 6 cups of popcorn lead to lower calorie intake during and after the snack—and more reported feelings of fullness.
…So you’ll be more likely to eat a reasonable portion size.
Since it pops up nice and fluffy, “popcorn is a great bang for your buck food. It’s air popped so you visually and physically can eat more of it,” Burak says. “You can eat a larger portion of it for naturally less calories than chips or pretzels. It gets the award for my top munchie food!”
For reference, 1 ounce (one of those small snack bags) of Lay’s Potato Chips has 160 calories. You could chow down on 5 cups of air-popped plain popcorn for fewer calories and much less fat.
Related: Fun Facts About Popcorn That Will Blow Your Mind
Popcorn counts as a serving of whole grains.
Unlike pretzels, popcorn or white flour crackers, “popcorn is considered a whole grain food,” Harris-Pincus says. It also contains a bit of energy-boosting iron.
It’s naturally gluten-free and vegan.
With zero wheat, meat or dairy, homemade popcorn made with just kernels or kernels, oil and salt is a stellar snack to share at gatherings that include those with food allergies or food sensitivities.
Popcorn is easy to make ahead.
Burak loves popcorn as a lunch box addition to round out a sandwich and fruit meal. “Even picky kids usually like popcorn, so it’s a snack that parents can feel good about putting in lunchboxes [simply pre-pop and toss into baggies] and serving when their kids get home from school,” she says.
It’s affordable to stock up on.
Even if you opt for heirloom varieties, popcorn is a budget-friendly snack. A 20-ounce bag, which yields about 64 popped cups, of Whole Foods Market 365 Everyday Value Heirloom Popcorn Kernels will cost you $3.99.
It also has a super-long shelf life.
Popcorn kernels can dry out over time, but as long as you store it in an airtight container with a lid, it should last for at least a full year after you purchase it.
You can dress it up to be savory…
“Homemade popcorn is a blank canvas,” Harris-Pincus says. While she admits that she’s a “purist” and prefers plain with a sprinkle of salt or parmesan cheese, she counsels her clients to add a dash of nutritional yeast, smoked paprika or cayenne pepper, if desired. If you think spice is nice, try our Buffalo-Ranch Popcorn or one of Rachael Ray’s top three popcorn recipe remixes.
…Or sweet, depending on what you’re craving.
If sweet flavored popcorn is your jam, try dusting your plain popcorn with cinnamon, cocoa powder, pumpkin or apple pie spice or toss in a spoonful of mini dark chocolate chips.
Looking for some new healthy popcorn brands to try? Here are a few you can’t go wrong with…
Next up, here’s why you should never use the popcorn button on your microwave.