By: Laura Jeffers, MEd, RD, LD
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The health benefits of popcorn may surprise you. It is higher in antioxidants than many fruits and vegetables. It is a good source of fiber. And it’s a whole grain.
But how do you reap what those kernels have to offer when they are often coated with butter, salt, sugar or 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.
Here are nine popcorn-eating tips to help you make the most of this airy, crunchy treat:
- Air-pop or make popcorn on the stove top. Air-popped 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.
- 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.
- 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. But beware: Once you start adding toppings, the calorie count goes up pretty quickly.
- Choose your cooking oil carefully. Extra virgin olive, walnut or avocado oils are best. Canola oil is the next best option. Flax seed 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. Avoid corn, sunflower and soybean oils.
- Try to avoid butter — or use it sparingly. If you feel like you must have it, use small amounts — 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.
- Limit kettle corn. This popcorn, mixed with refined sugar, salt and oil, is a slightly less nutritious option because it increases calories and salt intake. Remember, most people should only get 2,300 mg of sodium each day (about one teaspoon). When kettle corn is pre-packaged, it’s even harder to control the sodium and calories. It’s best to opt for low-sodium versions when possible.
- Watch out for 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. Sugars burn in the microwave, so sweet popcorn comes from artificial sweeteners. View pre-packaged varieties like caramel or dark chocolate as a treat, not a healthy snack. Things like truffle oil and cheese powders aren’t usually made from truffles or cheese, but from chemical and artificial flavorings.
- Be creative with healthier, lighter toppings. Want to spice up your popcorn the healthy way? Consider 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.
- Pair your popcorn with protein. One way to keep popcorn servings under control and make you feel fuller longer is to pair it with a protein. You can eat popcorn 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.