Popcorn Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits

Popcorn, annotated
Verywell / Alexander Shytsman 

If you love popcorn, you'll be pleased to know that it offers many surprising nutritional benefits. While low in calories, it's rich in antioxidants and delivers a healthy dose of fiber to aid in digestion and heart health.

If eaten plain, popcorn can fill you up with only trace amounts of saturated fat. On the other hand, if you add toppings like butter, caramel, or the hydrogenated soybean oils used in movie theater snacks, you may find yourself tripling the calorie count and consuming 7 grams or more of saturated fat per serving.

Nutrition Facts

Popcorn can be a great snack for those who are looking to eat healthier or to lose weight. Even if you're not trying to lose weight, popcorn is whole grain food that offers many of the same benefits as corn, rice, wheat, barley, and oats. 

The following nutrition information is provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for three cups of popcorn (24g) air-popped without added butter, salt, or oil.

  • Calories: 93
  • Fat: 1.1g
  • Sodium: 1.9mg
  • Carbohydrates: 18.6g
  • Fiber: 3.6g
  • Sugars: 0.2g
  • Protein: 3g

Carbs

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for carbohydrates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines for Americans is 130 grams per day for both adults and children aged 12 months and up. A single 3-cup serving of popcorn provides nearly 19 grams of carbohydrates and 15 grams of net carbs.

This makes popcorn an acceptable snack for most low-carb diets if consumed in moderation. However, popcorn is not advised during phase one of the South Beach Diet and is restricted during the induction phase of the Atkins Diet.

The dietary fiber in popcorn comes from the indigestible carbohydrates that pass through the digestive tract. A 3-cup serving provides an average of about 10% of your daily fiber needs.

As a frame of reference, adult women need 25 to 28 grams of fiber per day and adult men need 31 to34 grams per day. Older adults need slightly less; women over 50 should get around 22 grams per day and men over 50 should aim for 28 grams. Children need anywhere from 14 to 31 grams.

Fats

If air-popped, popcorn delivers only trace amounts of fat. Most are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, as opposed to saturated fats. 

Many people wrongly assume that plain microwave popcorn is pretty much the same as air-popped popcorn. The problem is that most microwave popcorn brands use hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils that contain harmful trans fats. These are the fats that contribute to heart attacks, stroke, and other serious diseases.

Nutrition Information for Toppings

In the end, any type of fat used to pop or top popcorn will add to its overall fat content.

  • Popcorn popped in oil provides 164 calories and 9 grams of fat per 3-cup serving.
  • Butter topping adds another 100 calories, 11 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat, and 90 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon.
  • Grated parmesan adds another 20 calories, 2 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat, and 46 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon.

The average small order (88g) of movie theater popcorn without added butter still delivers around 531 calories, 43 grams of fat, 25 grams of saturated fat, 671 milligrams of sodium, and 35 grams of carbohydrate. This could be due to the fact that most movie theaters season their popcorn with an artificial buttery seasoning salt called Flavacol.

Protein

A 3-cup serving of popcorn delivers 3 grams of protein, a relatively modest amount that rivals one cup of cooked broccoli. An average sedentary man needs around 56 grams of protein per day, while a sedentary woman would need roughly 46 grams per day.

Vitamins and Minerals

Most people don't think of popcorn as a nutrient-dense food, but it offers an impressive amount of essential vitamins and minerals. Based on the reference dietary intake (RDI) issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a single 3-cup serving of air-popped popcorn delivers:

  • Iron: 4.2% of the RDI
  • Copper: 7% of the RDI
  • Magnesium: 8% of the RDI
  • Phosphorus: 7% of the RDI
  • Potassium: 2% of the RDI
  • Vitamin B1 (thiamin): 2% of the RDI
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin): 3% of the RDI
  • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine): 2% of the RDI
  • Zinc: 7% of the RDI

Health Benefits

Most of us think of popcorn more as a snack food than health food. But popcorn can actually deliver significant health benefits, aiding in weight loss, improving digestion, and reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and maybe even cancer.

Weight Loss

Air-popped popcorn fills you up faster and takes longer to eat than other snacks. A study published in Nutrition Journal in 2012 reported that, among 35 normal-weight adults, popcorn was far more satiating than potato chips.

In comparing popcorn and chips, the study participants reported that 15 calories of popcorn were just as filling as 150 calories of potato chips.

Digestion

Most of the fiber in popcorn is insoluble, the type that helps keep you regular. Rather than drawing water from the intestines, this kind of fiber builds bulk in stool and speeds the transit time through the intestines. It works much in the same way as psyllium husk, providing gentle relief of constipation while reducing the risk of hemorrhoids and gut infections.

The fiber in 3 cups of popcorn is on par with 1 cup of cooked brown rice or oatmeal. While this shouldn't suggest that popcorn is a reasonable substitute for nutrient-packed whole grains, it does illustrate popcorn's value in maintaining a healthy balanced diet and good digestion.

Disease Prevention

Popcorn is one of the better sources of a type of polyphenols, antioxidants linked to numerous health benefits. By eliminating free radicals, polyphenols can reduce vascular inflammation, improving blood circulation and lowering blood pressure. This, in turn, reduces the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and cardiovascular disease.

Natural polyphenols, which include flavonoids, phenolic acids, lignans, and stilbenes, are also linked to a reduction in the risk of certain cancers. A 2016 review of studies suggested that flavonoids and isoflavones—both of which are polyphenols—may offer some breast and prostate cancer protection.

In the past, doctors would warn patients with diverticulitis off seeds, nuts, and popcorn, fearing that the kernels could get lodged in the intestines and trigger an inflammatory attack. Diverticulitis is an infection or inflammation of the digestive tract that causes the abnormal formation of pouches in the intestines. Today, there is little evidence that any of these foods cause diverticulitis.

By increasing your intake of insoluble fibers through popcorn and other whole grains, you will be more likely to maintain normal bowel movements and reduce stress on the intestines. It is also believed that the polyphenols found in fiber-rich foods like popcorn may help reduce the inflammation that can trigger a diverticular attack.

Allergies

Corn allergies, in general, are uncommon. While they may affect people with an allergy to rice, wheat, rye, or soy, scientists have been unable to establish the exact mechanism of cross-reactivity. People allergic to corn may also be cross-reactive to certain tree pollens and grasses.

Symptoms, if any, tend to appear within two hours of eating a corn product and may include rash, hives, nausea, diarrhea, the swelling of the lips, and a tingling sensation in the mouth. On rare occasions, the reaction may be severe, leading to a potentially life-threatening condition known as anaphylaxis.

There are no known drug interactions with popcorn.

Call 911 or seek emergency care if you develop shortness of breath, wheezing, rapid heart rate, lightheadedness, or swelling of the face, tongue, or throat after eating popcorn.

Adverse Effects

Generally speaking, most people can eat air-popped popcorn without any problems or side effects. Any adverse effects are more likely to come from any trans fats added to popcorn or the chemicals used to flavor the kernels rather than the popcorn itself. Due to the increased intake of fiber, however, some people may experience bloating, gas, and loose stools.

Varieties

When choosing the right microwave popcorn, let the numbers speak for themselves. Unless otherwise indicated, the serving size of the following popcorn brands is 2 tablespoons of unpopped corn or 3.5 to 4 cups of popped popcorn.

  • Orville Redenbacher's Classic Butter Popcorn: 170 calories, 12 grams of fat, 6 grams of saturated fat, 320 milligrams of sodium, 17 grams of carbohydrate, 2 grams of fiber, and 2 grams of protein
  • Orville Redenbacher's Cheddar Cheese Popcorn: 180 calories, 13 grams of fat, 6 grams of saturated fat, 400 milligrams of sodium, 18 grams of carbohydrate, 3 grams of fiber, and 2 grams of protein
  • Skinnygirl Butter and Sea Salt Popcorn (6 1/2-cup pack): 160 calories, 6 grams of fat, 2.5 grams of saturated fat, 400 milligrams of sodium, 28 grams of carbohydrate, 4 grams of fiber, and 3 grams of protein
  • Pop Secret Extra Cheesy Popcorn: 150 calories, 10 grams of fat, 1 gram of saturated fat, 220 milligrams of sodium, 14 grams of carbohydrate, 2 grams of fiber, and 2 grams of protein
  • Act II Extreme Butter Popcorn: 160 calories, 9 grams of fat, 4 grams of saturated fat, 290 milligrams of sodium, 28 grams of carbohydrate, 4 grams of fiber, and 3 grams of protein
  • Act II Light Butter Popcorn (6.5 cups popped): 140 calories, 3.5 grams of fat, 1 gram of saturated fat, 420 milligrams of sodium, 27 grams of carbohydrate, 4 grams of fiber, and 4 grams of protein

If watching your calorie intake, considering opting for the smaller 100-calorie microwavable popcorn packs offered by some manufacturers as they can help you maintain better portion control. Or, skip the microwave and use an air popper to pop your corn.

How to Prepare

If you want to make your popcorn as healthy as possible, air pop it at home. You can then sprinkle it with seasonings like nutritional yeast or a small dash of sea salt.

You can also microwave your own popcorn at home without a bag. Simply put a few tablespoons of kernels in a microwave-safe bowl, cover it, and place in the microwave for 2 to 4 minutes until the popping has slowed to one pop per second.

You can also make your own popcorn on the stove in a pot with a tight-fitting lid. To keep it on the lighter side, use a tablespoon of coconut oil.

Recipes

Healthy Popcorn Recipes to Try

Air-popped and microwave popcorn with just a dash of salt or seasoning is just one of many ways to enjoy this nutritious snack. Here are some creative recipes to try:

Frequently Asked Questions

Is popcorn good for weight loss?

Popcorn is low in calories and makes a great snack addition to a healthy weight loss plan. Because popcorn is also a great source of dietary fiber, it can also help keep you satisfied and fuller longer in between meals.

How many calories are in homemade popcorn?

If you make your own popcorn at home, a 1-cup serving of air-popped popcorn contains around 31 calories. If you add butter, salt, or other flavorings, the calorie count may increase slightly.

Is microwave popcorn dangerous for consumption?

Microwave popcorn is generally considered safe for consumption, especially when it does not contain excessive butter, seasonings, or other additives. However, in some cases, butter-flavored microwave popcorn may cause damage to the lungs if large quantities are inhaled over time. Studies show that "popcorn lung" is preventable, however, if consumers allow the bag to fully cool before opening, inhaling, and consuming.

Some experts have expressed concerns about a substance known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) which lines the bags of most microwave popcorn bags. PFOA is the same substance used for coating many non-stick pans. However, the FDA has determined that the amount used in microwave bags is safe.

Given that PFOA levels tend to accumulate in the body over time, further research may still be needed to evaluate the long-term risks of PFOA in frequent microwave popcorn eaters.

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