Is popcorn healthy?
Low in fat and high in fibre, you’d expect popcorn to be a healthy choice. Discover the perfect portion size and the healthiest flavourings with our expert guide from registered nutritionist Nicola Shubrook.
Freshly popped popcorn is one of the most satisfying snacks around, and instantly evokes movie night vibes. In recent years our appetite for popcorn has sky-rocketed, with manufacturers advertising it as a better-for-you alternative to snacks, like crisps or chocolate. But does it deserve this health halo? Read on to find out...
What is popcorn?
Popcorn is made from maize (corn) kernels that puff up and expand when exposed to heat – this can be done using butter or oil, or air-popped where just heat is applied. Once popped, flavourings like salt, sugar or spices may be added.
Nutritional profile of popcorn
A 30g serving of microwaved popcorn (plain):
• 116 kcal / 485kj
• 3.9g protein
• 1.4g fat
• 19.9g carbs
• 0.3g sugars
• 4.3g fibre
Air-popped, unflavoured popcorn is low in fat and high in fibre, it does contain some vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc, magnesium and some B vitamins but not in significant quantities.
Is popcorn healthy or unhealthy?
Corn is a whole-grain and as such, high in fibre; whole-grains have been linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. Most of us don’t eat enough fibre, which is important to support digestive health and to help slow the rate of digestion and absorption.
Popcorn is also a good source of polyphenols, which are plant compounds with protective, antioxidant properties that have been linked to better blood circulation and digestive health, as well as a potentially lower risk of certain cancers.
With a low-energy density, popcorn is a low-calorie snack, and being high in fibre it's also filling and, therefore, useful to include in a weight management diet.
Taking all this into account when air-popped and served either plain, or flavoured with herbs or spices like cinnamon or paprika, popcorn is a healthy snack. However, the minute you start cooking popcorn in oil or butter and add ingredients, like sugar, this can quickly turn it into an unhealthy choice. For example, a 30g bag of microwavable buttered popcorn provides over 10% of your recommended salt intake, and increases your daily saturated fat content.
What is a healthy portion size of popcorn?
A healthy portion size of popcorn is about 25-30g. While plain popcorn can be enjoyed as a low-calorie snack, portion size is key to keep calories in check. Flavoured varieties are best enjoyed as an occasional treat rather than as part of a regular balanced diet.
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Is popcorn safe for everyone?
Popcorn is gluten-free, so a suitable choice for those with coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten intolerance, however, always check the label on any pre-made or pre-flavoured popcorn.
Allergy to corn does exist although it is less common when compared with some other foods.
Popcorn has gained popularity over recent years as a low-calorie food, but when buying pre-made popcorn, check the label to see what ‘extras’ have been added.
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This article was reviewed on 14 March 2022 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post-graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Follow Kerry on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_
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