Is popcorn healthy?

Low in fat and high in fibre, popcorn can be a healthy snack – if you choose the right kind. Discover the perfect portion size and the healthiest flavourings.

A bowl of popcorn

Freshly-popped popcorn is one of the most satisfying snacks around, and instantly evokes that movie night excitement with each bite. In recent years our appetite for popcorn has sky-rocketed, with manufacturers advertising it as a better-for-you alternative to other snack options, such as crisps or chocolate. But does it really deserve its 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 it can be air-popped where just heat is applied to the kernels. Once popped, flavourings such as salt, sugar or spices can be added.
 

Nutritional profile of popcorn

Air-popped, unflavoured popcorn is mostly made up of carbohydrate. It's low in fat and high in fibre, making it a good snack option in comparison to crisps. It does contain some vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc, magnesium and some B vitamins but not in large quantities, and it is traditionally low in calories, with a 30g portion providing just 122 calories.

However, the minute you start cooking popcorn in oil or butter and adding flavours, this can quickly turn it into quite an unhealthy snack. For example, a 30g bag of microwavable buttered popcorn provides over 10% of your recommended salt intake, and increases your daily saturated fat content. Sweet or salted popcorn will, of course, quickly increase the amount of salt and sugar in your daily diet.

Popcorn itself is gluten-free, but always check the label on any pre-made or pre-flavoured popcorn that nothing extra has been added if you are avoiding gluten.

A paper bucket of popcorn on a pink background

What is a healthy portion size for popcorn?

A healthy portion size of popcorn is around 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 your daily diet.
 

How to buy the healthiest popcorn

The healthiest way to enjoy popcorn is to make it yourself at home using the kernels. Tuck into air-popped popcorn either plain, or using herbs and spices such as cinnamon or paprika for a burst of flavour.

If buying pre-made popcorn, the plainer the better. Always check the label to see what ‘extras’ have been added. Simple salt or sugar varieties will usually have fewer added ingredients than flavours such as toffee or chocolate marshmallow.

Popcorn has gained in popularity over recent years as it's a low-calorie food, but if you’re going to the cinema just be mindful that a large bucket of salted popcorn contains around 1,400 calories and over 5g of salt!
 

Healthy popcorn recipes

For a healthier popped snack, try our curry leaf popcorn or spiced chilli popcorn.
 

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This article was published on 14th August 2018.

Nicola Shubrook is a nutritional therapist and works with both private clients and the corporate sector. She is an accredited member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Find out more at urbanwellness.co.uk.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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