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Popcorn can either be healthy or bad for a person’s health, depending on what goes into making it. On its own, without any added sugar or salt, popcorn makes a nutritious snack and a good source of fiber.

Popcorn is a type of corn kernel that, when people heat it, it pops to become light and fluffy. Popcorn contains plenty of nutrients and vitamins when people make it in the right way.

However, many popcorn brands in supermarkets and movie theaters contain lots of added butter, sugar, and salt. These additions can be bad for a person’s health.

In this article, we look at how popcorn can be a healthful snack, its nutritional values and benefits, which types are healthful, and which types are not.

We also look at how people can make their own healthful, air-popped popcorn at home.

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Popcorn contains vitamins and minerals and is high in fiber.

Popcorn can be healthful when manufacturers or individuals prepare it the best way.

Popcorn is a whole grain, which is a group of foods that help boost heart health. It has the following nutritional benefits:

  • high in fiber
  • contains protein
  • contains vitamins and minerals
  • low in fat and sugar
  • contains no cholesterol

Air-popped popcorn with no oil provides the best health benefits. People can air-pop popcorn by heating popcorn kernels in a popcorn maker or on a stovetop.

Many people will be more used to eating popcorn at the cinema with toppings or flavorings. These added extras tend to have little nutritional value. Microwave popcorn may also contain additives, and the bags can have contaminants.

Premade popcorn often contains a high level of salt, or sodium. Eating too much sodium can cause high blood pressure and lead to other health complications. Some brands also include a lot of sugar.

Added butter, sugar, and salt can make popcorn an unhealthful snack. The health benefits discussed in this article refer to air-popped, oil-free popcorn specifically.

Below, we discuss the beneficial nutrition qualities that popcorn, prepared the right way, can provide.

Whole-grain benefits

Popcorn is a whole grain, which refers to a group of seeds that come from crops that include barley, millet, oats, rice, and wheat.

Unlike refined grains that manufacturers have processed to remove the bran and germ, whole grains include the entire grain seed, also called the kernel. This means that whole grains contain dietary fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and beneficial fats.

Other examples of food made of whole grains include brown rice, wholemeal bread, and oatmeal.

Fiber source

As a whole grain, popcorn is high in fiber, which is good for digestive health and promoting regular bowel movements.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a typical 3-cup or 24-gram (g) serving of air-popped popcorn contains 3.5 g of fiber. The recommended daily intake for the average person in the U.S. is more than 25 g a day, and most people do not reach these levels.

Learn more about daily fiber recommendations here.

Protein source

Popcorn also contains protein, with a typical serving containing just over 3 g of the 50 g daily value.

The body needs protein for many processes, from blood clotting and fluid balance to immune response and vision. Every cell in the body contains protein, and it has an important role in building and repairing cells and body tissues.

Vitamins and minerals

Unsalted, air-popped popcorn contains many vitamins and minerals, including calcium, potassium, vitamin A, and vitamin K.

According to the USDA, the nutritional values of air-popped, unsalted popcorn, in grams (g), milligrams (mg), and micrograms (mcg), are as follows:

NutrientUnitPer 100 g Per 3-cup portion, 24 g
Total lipid (fat)g4.541.09
Vitamin B6mg0.1570.038
Vitamin A RAEmcg102
Vitamin Emg0.290.07
Vitamin Kmcg1.020.3
Total saturatedg0.6370.153
Total monounsaturatedg0.9500.228
Total polyunsaturatedg2.3180.556
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A person can lose weight by adopting healthful eating habits.

Air-popped, unflavored popcorn is low in calories, fat, and sugar, and high in fiber. This means that when someone eats it as part of a balanced diet, popcorn can help them lose weight.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the best way for most people to lose weight is by making healthful lifestyle changes.

These include healthful eating habits, regular physical activity, and balancing the number of calories consumed with those that the body burns.

Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, are an essential part of a healthful diet. Foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fats, cholesterol, and added sugars, are also good choices.

However, added butter, sugar, and salt can make popcorn an unhealthful snack. Eating foods high in sugars and fats can lead to weight gain.

The CDC recommend that people limit their salt intake. Popcorn can be high in salt, and so checking the nutrition labels on the packaging to find out how much salt or sodium each item has is sensible.

Healthful eating should be about balancing, rather than restricting which foods people eat. This means that a reasonable portion of salted or sweetened popcorn as an occasional treat will not do any harm.

The healthful properties of popcorn vary, depending on the type:

Air-popped, unsalted, and unsweetened is the most healthful type of popcorn and, per serving, it contains:

  • 0.21 g of sugar
  • 1.09 g of fat

A serving of oil-popped, unsalted, and unsweetened home-made popcorn contains:

  • 0.13 g of sugar
  • 6.74 g of fat

In contrast, a serving of caramel-coated peanut popcorn contains:

  • 10.89 g of sugar
  • 1.87 g of fat

Fat and sugar in caramel popcorn can vary significantly, depending on the brand. Microwave popcorns vary by type and brand too. People can check the product label for the nutritional information they need to make a healthful choice.

Air-popping means heating the hard popcorn seeds, or kernels, in hot air until they burst and become popcorn.

People can add oil or butter for flavoring, but the popcorn does not need any oil to pop. If someone wants to add oil, they can use a version that contains healthful polyunsaturated fats, such as avocado oil.

To make fresh, air-popped popcorn at home, a person will need:

  • a pan with a tight lid
  • 3.5 tablespoons, or 58 g, of popcorn kernels
  • 0.25 to 0.5 teaspoon of salt

Use the following recipe to air-pop the popcorn kernels:

  • preheat the pan on a medium-high heat
  • add a few drops of water to the hot pan
  • add the popcorn kernels and replace the lid
  • shake the pot gently every 2 seconds
  • listen out for the kernels popping, which should take 1 or 2 minutes
  • keep going until there are at least 3 seconds between pops
  • remove from the heat, sprinkle with salt, and serve

Find the recipe here.

People can buy unpopped popcorn kernels from supermarkets or online stores.

If someone prefers not to use the stovetop method, they can choose between a range of popcorn makers online.

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When they eat it in moderation, popcorn can be healthful for people with diabetes.

Air-popped, unsweetened, unsalted popcorn contains around 78 percent carbohydrates. This means that it is healthful for people with diabetes only if they eat it in moderation.

People with diabetes have trouble making enough or being sensitive enough to insulin, a hormone which controls the levels of sugar in the blood.

Because carbohydrates break down into sugars once they are in the body, people with diabetes monitor how much carbohydrate they eat to avoid complications. Daily and per meal carbohydrate goals vary, according to many factors. It is best for those with diabetes to work with their healthcare team to determine the right amount for them.

The American Dietetic Association define 1 serving as around 15 g of carbohydrate, which is equal to 3 cups of air-popped popcorn. Once a person knows their specific carbohydrate goal per meal and per day, this definition can help them work out whether popcorn can fit within a meal or their day.

Depending on its preparation, popcorn can be a healthful snack.

When air-popped, unsweetened, and unsalted, popcorn contains plenty of fiber, vitamins, and minerals that the body needs. That said, added butter, sugar, and salt can make popcorn an unhealthful snack.

Checking the labels of foods before buying them and preparing ingredients at home can help people make more healthful dietary choices.