Whether the big game's on (especially now with the World Cup going on!) or when you're heading to the cinema with a few girlfriends, popcorn is a staple snack to have. Munching on this seemingly healthy treat is a simple, inexpensive way to fill your belly without having something too heavy. But, while the kernels themselves might not be the worst thing for your system, popcorn can really bring the unhealthiness to your doorstep in a variety of ways. We're here to let you know all about this classic snack and to answer the age-old question about popcorn nutrition.

Is Popcorn Healthy?

an isolated bowl of popcorn

Well, to be honest, the answer depends on a number of factors. Are your kernels popped with oil or hot air? Are you sprinkling in sugary additions like candy or dousing your popcorn in butter? Popcorn calories and nutrition also depend on the type of kernels you're buying from the store and how much you're eating in one sitting. Let's go through everything together.

Popcorn Calories

If you're sticking with the brands from the store that are low-fat or without butter, then your odds are pretty good for indulging in a healthier snack. For example, Orville Redenbacher's SmartPop! popcorn is a great way to get popcorn without all the added fat and calories. The kind without butter is only 130 calories per serving, 2 grams of fat, and doesn't have any sugar.

If, on the other hand, you're still looking for the buttery goodness, then Orville has a SmartPop! solution that brings flavor without fat. Okay, well, there's a little fat. The butter alternative gives you 120 calories per serving, zero grams of sugar, and only 2 grams of fat per serving.

There are obviously lots of other brands out there that you can try for a healthier version of popcorn. Jolly Time Healthy Pop Butter, Jolly Time Low Sodium 100 Calorie Healthy Pop Butter, and Whole Foods Organic Microwave Popcorn Light Butter Flavor are some of the options out there that give you great taste without high levels of sodium or tons of calories.

However, the healthiest way you can make popcorn is from the comfort of your own home. Grab some kernels and toss those bad boys into the pan. Just be sure to avoid sticking any oil in there and you'll have a healthier alternative you can still enjoy in front of the screen.

popcorn in a pan on the stove

Popcorn Additions

So, here's where people run into a problem. At the time, it might seem like a great idea to individually slather every kernel with butter and dump one or five packs of M&Ms in there, but resist the urge! Popcorn is already considered a snack for a reason and adding to the mix only gives you more calories, a higher fat content, more sodium, and an upset stomach.

Typical popcorn add-ons include butter and candy, but there's also the infamous gourmet popcorn options that do all the work for us but pack on calories.

If you were to add the typical 1-2 tablespoons of butter to your popcorn, you're looking at another 100-200 calories with a whopping 12-24 grams of fat. Similarly, if you wanted to pour a bag of M&Ms in there, you're looking at another 240 calories and 10 grams of fat. That's not even including the different kinds of M&Ms out there.

Cajun seasoning can also be a unique addition to popcorn, although this can raise the sodium levels beyond what would be ideal for a healthy diet.

Not to mention, with all the different recipes out there for popcorn variations, you need to watch what you're adding to the snack if you're counting calories. For example, some people drizzle chocolate onto their kernels, while others add chocolate chips. If you were to add half a cup of Nestle chocolate chips to your popcorn then you would be adding 560 calories into the mix. So, you know, not the best.

Now we've reached the famous gourmet popcorn options. I know they look delicious and our eyes grow wide with glee upon seeing them, but I'm gonna be the party pooper who ruins your day with nutritional information. As one example, Shirley's Gourmet Popcorn has anywhere from 9-25 grams of fat per serving. If you're thinking to get certain flavors like Coconut Paradise or Cinnamon Buns, then you'll be ingesting 63 grams of sugar and 55 grams of sugar respectively. Quite the leap from the homemade, hot air popped kernels at home.

a bowl of buttered popcorn

Popcorn Nutrition

After bumming you out with those facts we should talk about something a little happier. It would be unfair not to talk about the benefits of popcorn because it does have some healthy boosts!

Popcorn is whole grain, which means that it would theoretically help with constipation. The grains give off tons of fiber, and if you're having some trouble going to the bathroom then popcorn is one of the snacks you can have to end the streak.

This traditional snack is also pretty full of polyphenols, which help fight off cancer cells and have been linked to healthier hearts. The number of polyphenols in popcorn ranges, but one serving could give you as much as 250-300 mg of your daily intake. Not to mention, if you really want to nitpick, technically speaking popcorn has more polyphenols in it than fruits and vegetables. Joe Vinson, Ph.D., shared his research with Science Daily and revealed that polyphenols are more concentrated in popcorn because the snack only has about 4 percent water. Fruits and veggies, on the other hand, dilute their polyphenols since they're made up of about 90 percent water.

It's also low in calories - even the gourmet stuff. Depending on the kind you make at home, a typical serving of popcorn will give you anywhere from 50-200 calories, which isn't terrible for a snack we love.

loose popcorn kernels on black background

The Bottom Line

Whether or not your popcorn is healthy depends on how you make it! If you air pop it at home without any oil or butter and don't add in any sweet treats, you're good to go. A low-calorie snack that's high in fiber and polyphenols sounds like a win in our books. However, if you're someone who likes to indulge in the gourmet kinds of popcorn or toss in a few handfuls of candy then you're looking at a much higher fat content, higher levels of sodium, and way more grams of sugar.

The most important thing to remember is that there are healthier ways to go about this classic snack then the versions in theatres. Though it might be tempting to load up on fatty popcorn, you'll do your body and system much better if you refrain from all that stuff.

It's not going to kill you to indulge every once in a while, but this treat is as healthy as you make it. So, load up on those kernels and get popping at home!

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