Healthy Snack of the Week: Please Pass the Popcorn

Author Richelle E. Goodrich asks: Have you ever pondered the miracle of popcorn? It starts out as a tiny, little, compact kernel with magic trapped inside that, when agitated, bursts to create something marvelously desirable. It’s sort of like those tiny, little thoughts trapped inside an author’s head that—in an excited explosion of words—suddenly become a captivating fairytale!

While bordering on the metaphorically profound, I get it. I relish making popcorn at home. I love the sound. I love that just a little bit in the pot makes several gargantuan bowls full. I love the taste—plain or flavored. I love that it satisfies my hunger. And I especially love those crunchy little half-popped kernels that didn’t quite make it to fully popped maturity.

Oh, did I mention that popcorn can be good for you?

According to the website, popcorn has more protein than any grain cereal, more iron than eggs or roast beef, and more fiber than pretzels or potato chips. By volume, it is the favorite snack food in the U.S., with Americans consuming 17 billion quarts a year. That didn’t include the world’s largest popcorn ball, which according to The Popcorn Board (who knew there was such a thing) was created by volunteers in Sac City, Iowa, in 2009, and stands more than eight feet tall and weighs more than 5,000 pounds. (Actually, a 6,510-pound ball was created for the 2013 Indiana State Fair, but later destroyed for feed).

PopcornDespite its enticing aroma, popcorn at your local movie theater is unlikely to be very healthy. CBS News once turned to laboratory analysis conducted by the Center for Science and Public Interest (CSPI), which studied popcorn from Regal theaters, the nation’s largest movie chain, and determined that a medium popcorn contained 1,160 calories and “three days worth” (60 grams) of fat. According to CBS: “Regal said that the medium popcorn had 720 calories and the large had 960, but CSPI’s tests found those numbers to be understated. A small popcorn at Regal had 670 calories—the same as a Pizza Hut Personal Pepperoni Pan Pizza. . . . AMC, the second-largest chain, had similar calorie and fat counts. Adding the butter-flavored oil topping piles on an additional 240 calories.”

movie-popcorn-butterMichaela Bisienere of offers the following note of caution if attending a movie: “Major movie chains are now offering a variety of add-on seasoning for your popcorn, including flavorings like cheesy jalapeno, buffalo wing, and caramel. Stay away from these and the ‘extra butter’ option—these can cause the sodium and/or sugar levels of your snack to skyrocket.”

Popcorn made in your kitchen, however, can be a whole other story.

Microwaving pre-packaged popcorn might not be the healthiest solution. Beyond the possible inclusion of trans fats, some believe that microwave bags can break down, releasing unwanted substances, including potentially carcinogenic acids. Besides that, the kernels are often coated in high-calorie substances. Microwaving your own unpopped corn is better for you. Pour your corn into a well-sealed paper bag. Kimberly Holland of notes that cooking times will vary depending on your microwave, but suggests starting with two minutes for a tablespoon of kernels. And “sprinkle on one tablespoon of salty Parmesan cheese for just 22 [more] calories.”  microwave corn

Popping corn with a bit of low-calorie vegetable oil on a stove top is highly preferable. Even then, one must be mindful of the calories being absorbed from the oil. Heat the oil a bit, first, then add your corn—generally enough to single-layer the bottom of the pot (better to have a little less in the pot than create an overflow). With the lid on tightly, shake every 10 to 15 seconds (a bit more frequently as the popping intensifies) until the popping process is complete.

Most agree that the healthiest way to make popcorn is with an air popper. One cup (25 grams) of air-popped corn contains roughly 31 calories with no oils, fats, or sugars added. Popping in oil can triple the amounts of calories and fats.

“One 3-cup serving of air-popped popcorn has 93 calories, 1 gram of fat, 3.5 grams of fiber and 2 milligrams of sodium,” writes Serena Styles of Demand Media. “To compare, 3 cups of commercial microwave popcorn with oil has 192 calories, 14 grams of fat, 2.7 grams of fiber and 348 milligrams of sodium. If you add just 1/4 teaspoon of salt to your air-popped popcorn, its sodium content will skyrocket to 581 milligrams.”

“Trouble is, there’s a catch when it comes to plain, air-popped popcorn,” writes Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, for WebMD (which notes that popcorn contains vitamins including B-1, B-2, B-3, B-6, as well as folic acid, magnesium, selenium, and zinc). “Does the word ‘cardboard’ mean anything to you?’”

True enough, popcorn without the oil, butter, and salt is rather mundane. At Learning Liftoff, we’re all about making snacks that are not only healthy but fun and satisfying for that between-studies break. With that in mind, here are some suggestions of ways to make your popcorn more popular: offers 30 recipes with flavors ranging from apple pie and spicy Nutella to wasabi soy and buffalo ranch. provides “Ten Healthy Microwave Popcorn Recipes” with step-by-step instructions for flavors like lemon pepper, peanut butter, and cinnamon toast. has some delicious treats including this recipe for maple-chili popcorn, this popcorn ball, and a graham cracker and praline popcorn that checks in at 97 calories per half cup.

Serena Styles serves up  several more suggestions for popcorn lovers. For a spicy treat, sprinkle with a blend of crushed red pepper and cayenne (paprika and chili powder for a bit less spice). For sweet popcorn, mix a bit of ground cinnamon and grated nutmeg. If microwaving, shake the seasonings along with the kernels in the bag. Otherwise, add the seasonings to already-popped kernels.

Styles suggests limiting serving size to three cups of popped corn for a “reasonable” snack and notes that air-popped corn can be stored in a sealed container for up to a week without going stale. Unpopped corn should be stored in a dry environment, not the refrigerator.

What are your thoughts on popcorn? Please share with us, and be sure to look for more Snack of the Week suggestions and information on healthy eating at Learning Liftoff’s food pages.

Featured Image – eddie welker / CC by 2.0

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