A classic favorite, the health benefits of popcorn may surprise you. It’s higher in antioxidants than many fruits and vegetables, it’s a good source of fiber and it’s a whole grain. What more can you want from America’s favorite snack?
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On the flipside, popcorn is often coated with butter, salt, sugar and hidden chemicals. Even when you avoid the obvious dietary pitfalls and empty calories, there are questions that arise about the best, healthiest ways to cook and prepare it.
We asked registered dietitian Laura Jeffers, MEd, RD, LD nine tips to help you make the most of this crunchy treat:
1. Make popcorn on the stovetop
Air popped popcorn uses no oil, meaning it has the fewest calories.
“Popping it in oil, however, is a great way to consume a healthy portion of fat to control hunger,” Jeffers says.
Not only can you manage serving size, but you can also make it in under 10 minutes in most cases. All you need is a pot, lid and oil and you’ll be on your way to making healthy popcorn.
2. Use walnut, avocado or extra virgin olive oils
Walnut, avocado or extra virgin olive oils are best when making popcorn on the stovetop. Canola oil is the next best option. Flaxseed and wheat germ oil shouldn’t be heated, so they don’t really work for popping popcorn. Use palm and coconut oils sparingly because of their high saturated fat content and avoid corn, sunflower and soybean oils altogether.
3. Manage portion sizes
A serving size depends on the type of popcorn you are eating, but for reference, one cup of plain popcorn is about 30 calories. Be cautious because once you start adding toppings, the calorie count goes up pretty quickly.
4. Avoid microwave popcorn
In general, microwave popcorn is the least healthy option. It often contains a lot of salt, the flavorings are artificial and people tend to eat too much because of the large portion size of most bags.
5. Avoid butter — or use it sparingly
Buttered popcorn is a fan favorite but unfortunately comes with hidden chemicals and calories.
If you feel like you must have it, use 2 to 3 teaspoons and gradually cut it out altogether. When you purchase buttered or extra buttered popcorn at a movie theater, a chemical is added to the food. If you add extra butter, you are getting at least one and a half times the normal butter serving. But, if you are eating movie theater popcorn and adding butter, the damage is probably already done.
“If it is a very infrequent treat and you order a small size, I don’t think it makes that much of a difference,” Jeffers says.
6. Limit kettle corn
Kettle corn is usually mixed with refined sugar, salt and oil and is a slightly less nutritious option because it increases calories and salt intake. Most people should only get 2,300 mg of sodium each day, which is about one teaspoon. When kettle corn is prepackaged, it’s even harder to control the sodium and calories. It’s best to opt for low-sodium versions when possible, Jeffers says.
7. Beware of added sweeteners and chemicals
Avoid purchasing popcorn that is anything more than your basic popped kernel because with each thing added, the food becomes less healthy. Although we crave sweets at times, beware of sweet popcorn because it comes from artificial sweeteners.
“View prepackaged varieties like caramel or dark chocolate as a treat, not a healthy snack,” Jeffers says.
Be aware that things like truffle oil and cheese powders aren’t usually made from truffles or cheese, but from chemical and artificial flavorings. Make sure to read labels whenever you’re at the grocery store to really understand what ingredients are in the box.
8. Add healthier, lighter toppings
Spice up your popcorn in a healthy way by adding hot sauce or melt a couple of ounces of cheese on your popcorn. You also can try a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar or eat your popcorn with pickles or jalapeño peppers. Make sure to add spices and seasonings and not powders, flavorings or a lot of salt.
9. Add protein
One way to keep popcorn servings under control and make you feel fuller longer is to pair it with a protein. Try eating it with a tablespoon of peanut butter, 2 ounces of cheese (as long as you didn’t top the popcorn with cheese already) or another protein source you like. You’ll be on your way to eating a nutritious snack in no time!