The King of Snack Foods: Popcorn

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD

Say good bye to cupcakes and hello to popcorn, the near perfect, all-natural snack food boasting fiber, gluten-free and whole grain goodness. The popularity of popcorn has exploded and it is riding the wave of an all-natural healthy indulgence.

Popcorn can be a healthy snack when enjoyed in proper portions and simply prepared.

We Love Popcorn

Americans eat about 51 quarts of popcorn per person annually and surprising, most of it (70%) is at home, according to the Popcorn Board.

And it’s not just plain or buttered, popcorn has gone gourmet pushing the boundaries with a variety of flavors from caramel coating to wasabi, bacon, kale and sriracha.

It is not just limited to movie watching, popcorn is replacing nuts as bar snacks and as toppings and ingredients on sweet and savory foods from soups to desserts.

Americans are buying more snacks than ever before according to a Mintel report, and 35% are snacking more instead of eating meals. The snack category, including popcorn, grew 28% from 2008 to 13 and is predicted to grow an additional 40% from 2013 to 18.1

Popping Good

Popping corn is one of the oldest forms of corn made from a specific type of corn, cultivated with a tough moisture-sealed hull and a starchy interior that puffs up and pops when heated.

Plain air popped popcorn is low in calories, contributes dietary fiber to diets and what most people don’t realize is popcorn is also 100% whole grain. Three cups of air popped popcorn has less than 100 calories, 1 gram fat and 3.5 grams of fiber.

Popcorn is a healthy snack, but it’s not recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for children under the age of four because of the risk of choking. Studies have shown that popcorn can boost whole grain intake in children (over 4 years) and adults.

Movie Theater Popcorn Demonized

In 1994, sales at movie theaters reportedly plummeted after the headline grabbing campaign by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) nominated movie theater popcorn for “Best Supporting Actor in the Obesity Epidemic.”

Popcorn itself wasn’t demonized; it was the saturated fat from the coconut oil used by most movie theaters to pop it. CSPI reported a medium-sized serving of buttered popcorn contained 37 grams of saturated fat, almost double the 20 gram/day recommendation.

In 2009, CSPI did a follow-up story and found many chains continued using coconut oil while others switched to healthier oils like canola.

Most chains use a “buttery” non-hydrogenated soybean oil topping that adds about 120 to 130 calories per tablespoon. Even without the topping, movie theater popcorn is usually heavily seasoned with salt ranging from 210 milligrams to a heart-stopping 1,500 milligrams.

By December of 2015, the guesswork of movie theater popcorn calories will be demystified with new labeling regulations that require posting of the nutrition information.

Perils of Popcorn Portions

Crunchy, salty and guilt free is how most people view popcorn, but it depends on the preparation and portion size. Popcorn can be an addictive treat that yields calories closer to a meal instead of a snack. Eating popcorn at movie theaters is a national pastime and we like it in big tubs. A large bucket can contain more than 1000 calories and several days’ worth of saturated fat.

Since air popped popcorn is not available at most theaters, choose a small portion without added butter and share it since most small sizes contain six cups, twice the normal portion size.

Popping at Home

Even at home, movies go hand in hand with popcorn where most people rely on microwave popcorn. Nothing could be easier, but this snack loses points because some varieties still contain trans fats.

Most bags contain 29 grams fat and 8.5 grams trans fats for plain and the sweet varieties pack in even more calories with added sugar. When choosing microwave popcorn, consider choosing 100 calorie single serving bags and 94 percent fat-free with less than .5 grams of saturated fat for 5 cups and no partially hydrogenated oil.

Or consider skipping the convenience of microwave popcorn and get whole grain goodness from air popped popcorn. Air popped popcorn delivers the goods with none of the fat and just 31 calories per cup. When oil-popped, it contains only 55 calories per cup. Even drizzled lightly with butter, it’s only 90 to 120 calories per cup.

Pop it yourself and go lightly on the salt. Start with ¼ cup kernels in a plain paper bag with a teaspoon of vegetable oil; fold over twice and secure with tape. Lay the bag down in the microwave and pop for 2 to 3 minutes. Or use the same ingredients in a pot on medium high heat; shake continuously until popping ceases. Keep the lid on: popcorn kernels can pop up to three feet in the air!

Jazz up your popcorn with:

  • A sprinkle of chili powder and lime juice
  • Roasted chickpeas or nuts
  • Parmesan cheese and fresh rosemary
  • Cayenne pepper or Cajun seasoning mix
  • Mist with olive oil and sprinkle with garlic and black pepper
  • Dust with cinnamon and a little brown sugar

Bag popped popcorn does not contain trans fats, but it can be high calorie. Candy coated popcorn can have up to 10 teaspoons of added sugar, more like candy than a whole grain. Stick to popcorn that has around 160 calories and 50 mg sodium in 4 cups.


1Cynthia Harriman, Director of Food and Nutrition Strategies, Oldways / The Whole Grains Council