Popcorn: A healthy hit or a miss?

Nov 2, 2007 at 9:58 a.m. ET

Did you realize that popcorn may be oldest snack food dating back at least 4000 years? However, in those early years it was more likely eaten as a fine meal mixed with water. Today, we consume 16 billion quarts of popcorn as a crunchy snack that comes in many forms -- including plain, sweet, savory or salty. Shirley Perryman, MS, RD at the Department of Food Science and Human for Nutrition Colorado State University, has this advice.

How healthy is it?

On the plus side for popcorn is the fact that it's a whole grain, which means it is loaded with fiber -- 3.6 grams of fiber in three cups.

Boy eating popcorn

Three cups of popcorn equal a 1 ounce of whole grain equivalent from the grains group, and also contain 90 calories if air popped, 165 calories if popped in oil -- and considerably more, around 300 calories, if topped with butter.

So how fattening is popcorn when you go beyond butter? Well, once it gets mixed with chocolate and caramel and all those other types of yummy, sugary add-ons, the calories go out of sight.

If you think you just can't face eating dry popcorn, there is a healthy way to enjoy it flavored!

The trick: Spray air popped popcorn lightly with an oil spray, then sprinkle it with whatever suits your fancy. Some ideas include parmesan cheese, any plain or flavored salt, butter- or cheese-flavored sprinkles (such as Molly McButter), chili powder, garlic powder, dry ranch-style seasoning mix, lemon pepper or your favorite herbs. And for a sweet twist, try cinnamon, brown sugar and/or nutmeg.

Don't breathe the butter

You may have concerns about microwaving popcorn after hearing the recent news report about the man with "popcorn lung." Diacetyl flavoring is added to some butter-flavored microwave popcorn. When the diacetyl is heated and becomes a vapor and if it is inhaled into the lungs over a long period of time, it can cause the small airways in the lungs to become swollen and scarred.

This appears to be an isolated case for a consumer who ate at least two bags of popcorn daily and inhaled the fumes of freshly popped microwave popcorn. Error on the side of caution and do not breathe in the aroma and steam when opening the bag after microwaving. You may not realize that diacetyl occurs naturally in foods such as cheese, cocoa, coffee and certain fruits. Diacetyl flavoring has also been approved for food use in foods besides popcorn and may be found in ice cream, beverages, candy and baked goods. However, the leading manufacturers of microwave popcorn are removing diacetyl flavoring from their products.

Movie theater popcorn is likely less healthy than the microwave variety. Unless you find out differently from your local movie theater, it's usually popped in coconut oil. Coconut oil is highly saturated or partially hydrogenated oil and it is loaded with trans fat, and therefore not recommended for those of you want to eat heart-healthy.

Additionally, the serving sizes at the theater are humongous and consequently loaded with saturated fat and calories. A large bucket may contain 1650 calories. Research has shown that the larger the container, the more we're likely to eat. Typically we eat almost half again as much when the portion size is large. In 1957, popcorn came in a three-cup bucket at the movies. Today, the large bucket holds about 16 cups!

The perils of pigging out on popcorn

Keep in mind popcorn pitfalls before you indulge:

  • At the supermarket, choose light varieties to save on fat and calories.
  • Read the nutrition facts label and the ingredient label to note the fat source.
  • Ideally choose those made with oils other than palm or coconut oil or partially hydrogenated fat.
  • Multiply the numbers for fat grams by the number of servings you are likely to consume.

Just because the serving size as listed shows zero grams of trans fat, if you're likely to eat three times that amount, your saturated or trans fat intake can quickly go past zero to 1.5 grams. (A manufacturer can show zero grams of trans fat per serving if it is less than 0.5 grams. Both saturated fat and trans fat are on the list of things to avoid or limit for heart health.)

Eat smart and enjoy

Regardless of what kind of popcorn you choose, keep your focus on portion size -- whether eaten at home, at the theater or elsewhere.  Deprivation isn't any fun, and part of eating is the enjoyment. So if the serving size is large, consider sharing or saving some for later.

Fortunately, some manufacturers are realizing that bigger isn't always better. Small bags of microwave popcorn -- such as the 100 calorie packs from PopSecret, Jolly Time and Oroville Redenbacher -- are now available at grocery stores nationwide, and these little bags make for a perfect snack.

Chosen wisely, popcorn is a healthful snack you can enjoy year-round!

Also see:

How to make the best microwave popcorn