Joy Bauer

Popcorn as healthy as veggies? Depends how you pop it

March 25, 2012 at 1:23 PM ET

msnbc.com
Joy Jernigan

Who doesn’t love unwinding on a Friday night with a terrific movie and a great big bowl of fluffy popcorn? When prepared with just the right ingredients, popcorn is low in calories, heart-smart, and surprisingly chock-full of healthy nutrients. Adding to popcorn’s wholesome reputation, researchers at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania reported this week that popcorn has more antioxidant substances called polyphenols than fruits and vegetables.

Lou Jones / ZUMA Press file
Jun 23, 2004; Boston , Massachusetts, USA; (File Photo, Date Unknown) Popcorn is a variety of corn, Zea mays everta, having hard kernels that burst to form white, irregularly shaped puffs when heated. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Lou Jones/ZUMA Press. (©) Copyright 2004 by Lou Jones

Polyphenols have been linked to a reduction in heart disease and certain cancers. And, since it’s 100% whole grain, popcorn is also a great source of fiber -- you get 5 grams in a 4-cup portion. That's pretty darn impressive for a snack food.

Popcorn will never be a replacement for produce, which is brimming with essential nutrients and antioxidants not found in grains. But it’s still a terrific, low-cal munchie. And you do need to steer clear of varieties doused in butter, oil, and/or salt, ingredients that negate the health perks.

Movie theater popcorn is the worst culprit of all. A recent report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest revealed that a medium tub at Regal theaters has 1,200 calories and 60 grams of saturated fat — three times your daily allotment. Chomping through an entire container (easy enough to do when you’re totally distracted by whatever’s on screen) is the caloric equivalent of eating three McDonald’s Quarter Pounders — before you factor in the extra fat and calories from the greasy, buttery topping they squirt on top.

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Your best bet is “naked” air-popped popcorn, made with a hot air popper (or using my microwave “hack,” below!). Popped without any oil, this diet-friendly snack “weighs in” at just 30 calories per cup. That’s a steal in the snack world, considering a cup of potato chips will cost you 150 calories and the same portion of “snack mix” clocks in at 220.

Microwave popcorn is convenient, but it has its drawbacks, even if you choose the light or low-fat varieties. Diacetyl and related compounds used in “artificial butter flavoring” can cause lung disease when inhaled in large quantities, such as by factory workers employed at microwave popcorn manufacturing plants. And most microwave bags are coated with PFCs (perfluorinated compounds), chemicals that have been shown to suppress immune function in children and cause cancer in animals. In fact, most manufacturers are working on phasing out use of this chemical.

There are a few healthy, natural brands on the market that avoid all of these artificial, potentially harmful ingredients, like Quinn Popcorn, but it’s also easy enough to make your “microwave” air-popped popcorn at home.

Simply pour 3 to 4 tablespoons plain kernels into a brown paper lunch bag, fold over the top of the bag twice to seal it closed, and microwave for about 2 minutes, or until the popping slows to a few seconds between pops. (Cook time will vary from depending upon the microwave, so it may take you a few tries to figure out the perfect pop time for your unit.)

If you’re looking to add some personality to your popcorn, experiment with these ideas: 

  • Lightly mist with olive oil and sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese and black pepper
  • Sprinkle with chili powder and a dash of coarse sea salt
  • Top with nutritional yeast, a vegan source of vitamin B-12, for a cheese-like flavor
  • Make traditional air-popped corn into a modest-calorie sweet treat by mixing one cup of popcorn with dark chocolate shavings and a dusting of cinnamon

And if you prefer the convenience of buying your kernels already popped, here are some terrific brands that go light on the oil and salt: 

Skinny Pop

3.5 cups = 135 calories, 90 mg sodium

Skinny Pop wins for “tastes most like movie theater popcorn” – but unlike the real stuff, it has just 39 cals per cup.

365 Everyday Value Organic Popcorn Reduced Fat & Low Sodium

3.5 cups = 130 calories, 85 mg sodium

With just a mist of sunflower oil and a dash of sea salt, you can satisfy your snack craving without a sodium overload. 

Good Health Half Naked Popcorn

3.5 cups = 105 calories, 122 mg sodium

Big poofy white kernels – and the lowest calorie count of all the brands featured here.

Bearitos 50% Less Oil Lite Organic Popcorn

3.5 cups = 140 calories, 100 mg sodium

This organic popcorn contains 50% less oil than regular varieties.

For more healthy snacking ideas, visit JoyBauer.com, and follow Joy on Facebook and Twitter

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