your nutrition questions – is popcorn healthy?

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is popcorn healthy // the muffin myth

From time to time a reader emails me with a nutrition question, and up until now I’ve been answering most of them by email. I thought that I’d start answering some of these nutrition questions on the blog as y’all might be interested in the answer!

Is popcorn healthy? Well, yes. And no. Let’s break it down.

Popcorn is one of six types of corn cultivated around the world today. It’s scientific name is zea mays everta, and it is the only type of corn that will pop when heated. The ability to pop stems from the moisture content inside the kernel, which for popcorn is around 14%.

Popcorn is an intact whole grain, which means that the bran, the germ, and the endosperm are all intact within the kernel. Popcorn is high in fiber, particularly insoluble, which is kind of like a cleanup crew for your digestive tract. It’s also a good source of vitamin C, B3, and manganese.

In it’s purest form, air-popped popcorn is a healthy whole grain snack which per 1 cup has about 31 calories, 1 gram of protein, 6 grams of carbohydrate, 1 gram of fiber, and only trace amounts of fat.

The nutritional value of oil-popped popcorn varies depending on the type and quantity of oil used to pop the corn. Oils that have high smoke-points are preferred as they won’t break down or oxidize as readily during the popping as would oils with a low smoke-point. Canola or coconut oil are good choices. Olive oil has a low smoke-point and breaks down easily when heated so it is a poorer choice nutritionally. (Real talk: I pop my corn with olive oil all the dang time. I just like the flavour.)

A tablespoon of vegetable oil has about 115 calories and 15 grams of fat, so if you’re popping half a cup of popcorn kernels (which, according to popcorn.org, becomes about 16 cups of popped corn, although personal experience tells me it’s about half that) in 2 tablespoons of oil it works out to about 40 calories and 1 gram of fat per cup of popped corn.

But we still haven’t put anything on it! I like my popcorn with melted butter, nutritional yeast, and Old Bay seasoning on it. Yum! Say we melted ¼ cup of butter to drizzle on that 16 cups of popcorn. We’re adding about 400 calories and 45g of fat in all, so our popcorn is now 65 calories and 4 grams of fat per cup. That still doesn’t sound so bad, but I know that I can take down half of that batch of popcorn no problem, which means my snack has just added up to over 500 calories and 64 grams of fat. And we haven’t talked about sodium yet. It adds up quickly!

To be honest, I don’t really worry about this because in my house we usually only enjoy delicious buttery popcorn as a treat on the weekends. Plus, with the fiber and nutrients popcorn is bringing to the table, that buttery bowl of corn is still a better choice than opening up a bag of chips. Air-popped popcorn would make a great every day snack, as would oil-popped if you kept it bare naked. The buttery stuff should be a moderation situation.

But what about microwave popcorn? Wellll, this is where things start to fall apart. There are two main problems here: the bag, and the contents.

The bag that almost all microwave popcorn brands use is lined with perflurooctanoic acid (say that five times fast). This is the same toxin found in teflon non-stick pans. PFOA can stay in the environment and the human body for long periods of time. When heated, this chemical has been linked to infertility, cancer, and other diseases.

What’s in the bag isn’t much better. It changes from brand to brand, but a quick skim of ingredients lists from some of the major brands reveals a slew of added oil included hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans fats) salt, artificial flavour and colour, and preservatives.

Have you heard of popcorn lung? That artificial butter flavour is so toxic it has been linked to bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare, life-threatening, and irreversible obstructive lung disease. This was previously thought to only affect factory workers who were inhaling air-born diacetyl in that buttery flavour, but in 2007 a heavy consumer of microwave popcorn (2 bags a day) became the first public consumer to be diagnosed with popcorn lung.

This certainly isn’t to say that the occasional bag of microwave popcorn is going to kill you, but keep it as an infrequent treat and don’t inhale when you open the bag!

Does organic matter? Again, yes and no. If you’re worried about GMOs then there’s good news! According to GMO expert Jeffrey Smith (executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology), although almost 90% of the corn grown and eaten in the US is GMO corn, popcorn comes from a different seed and has not been genetically modified. Yet.

Buttt, if you want to ensure that your popcorn is free from pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, and other chemical residues, then organic is your best bet. The good news is that organic popcorn still works out to mere pennies when you pop it at home.

The bottom line? Popcorn is a healthy whole grain and can be a totally nutritious snack. How you pop it and how you top it will of course influence the overall nutritional value. Air-popped is the best choice but oil popped isn’t far behind. Be conservative with the butter or oil toppings, and avoid frequent consumption of microwave popcorn.

This is how I pop my corn.

Note! Paul and I are in Istanbul for the weekend, so I may not be able to respond to questions and comments as quickly as normal. I promise I’ll get back to you ask quickly as I can! If you’d like you can follow our trip on Instagram.

Resources:
popcorn.org
Why microwave popcorn is an absolute health nightmare
World’s healthiest foods – popcorn

 

All text and photos © The Muffin Myth 2014

 



 

Comments

  1. I had a rant last year on by blog about those horrid bags. A reader wrote in to say that as a microwave alternative he popped his corn in an old-fashioned paper bag. I had read about this before but always worried about fire risk. Since then my Dad and others I know have done the homemade popcorn bag thing, and it is all perfectly cooked and no flames 🙂 I have popcorn once or twice a week, air-popping usually and then spraying with a quality butter spray and topping with notch and popcorn salt. Sometimes with nori flakes or leftover crumbled kale chips (the latter is rare as I always scoff the kale chips!). Thanks for reassuring all that popcorn is in fact good for us. Apparently the polyphenol content rivals that of many nuts. Not sure how many studies confirm this, but I’ll believe it until otherwise rebutted.

    • I tried the paper bag thing and then I saw this bright light in my microwave. yup— set the damn bag on fire. My landlord didn’t even smell it. how I have no idea. I never did THAT again. I just make it on the stove w/ oil or air pop it.

    • Yes, I’ve done the paper bag in the microwave thing, and no flames. I find it doesn’t pop as well as air or stove top though, and I often end up with a lot of unpopped kernels (technically referred to as ‘spinsters’) but it is a good technique to be aware of. Interesting about the polyphenols, I’ll have to look I to that further!

      >

    • I think from a nutritional standpoint that kind of microwave popping is perfectly fine, though I’m not sure how oil stands up to microwaving. I prefer the way my stove top corn turns out, but if you’re happy with the results when microwaving in pyrex, then go for it!

  2. This is great to hear because I do probably eat more popcorn then I should, but I use GMO free heirloom varieties of corn (blue corn popcorn is really awesome) But I’m sure I probably put a little too much butter on sometimes 😉 Hope you are having fun on your trip!

  3. Popcorn is our ‘go to’ snack. We use grape seed oil, (though I’m sure it’s not as tasty as olive) on an old fashioned stove top popper. No butter, just a bit of salt and nutritional yeast. (We are such stoics!) But we scarf down several cups. You can’t do this with cheese.
    Looks like we can get a bit more adventurous on the seasonings, and check for exotic varieties.
    Thanks for a great post.

  4. I’m so excited to read you will accept questions!! Thank you!!

    I make popcorn in the microwave, no oil, glass popcorn popper. Three minutes, and there are very few, if any, spinsters. 🙂

    I usually have it plain, if I want something on it I will add a quick, very fine mist spray of olive oil, and then sprinkle whatever on top. A quick shake, and it gets covered and sticks. (If you just shake something on top, it all settles on the bottom.)

  5. Great article addressing the nutritional side of popcorn. My favorite method of cooking it in in the Whirley Pop on the stove. 1/2 cup of kernels, 1 Tbsp olive oil, 1 Tbsp coconut oil and 3/4 tsp of Flavacol and you have popcorn that tastes just like the movies without having to add all the extra butter.

    • I used to have a whirley popper and enjoyed it very much. When it broke down after many years of use I switched to just using a heavy-bottomed pot on the stove and I prefer that now. I just looked up the ingredients in Flavacol… yikes! I’ll be sticking with real butter.

  6. Hola!

    Great article! I really appreciate what you said about popcorn corn not being of the same GMO modified nature as the rest of the corn out there- that is really significant and great to know! Thanks for the great article!

    Keep up the great work,
    Natasha

  7. I just made 1/4 cup popcorn in 1/4 cup olive oil on the stove. Not all the olive oil is on the popcorn because the pot is greasy. According to your formula my popcorn is 80 calories per cup. I had 6 cups. That would be 480 calories. I just don’t think it’s that much. I like air popped popcorn (or copporn as my nephew used to call it LOL). and I use Kernal Season’s flavors using no calorie olive oil spray to make it stick. (I eat virtually no sodium so the sodium still doesn’t bring me anywhere near the us rda. I’m not worried. I ate very well today and no snacking at all. I lost 3 pounds since Monday just by eating clean (except for pizza on Wednesday), no snacking and no more than 1200 calories./day. Hoping for another 3 pounds by Monday. 🙂

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