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.

Popcorn is a tasty snack that can be eaten as part of a nutritional diet. It's easy to make at home on the stovetop, air-popping machine, or microwave. Keep reading to learn more about popcorn nutrition facts and benefits.

Popcorn Nutrition Facts

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
  • Magnesium: 34.5mg

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 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.

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 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 daily, 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 because 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

Calories

Three cups of popcorn (24g) air-popped without added butter, salt, or oil contains 93 calories. About 77% of popcorn calories come from carbs, 13% from protein, and 10% from fat.

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.

May Help Balance Weight

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. Replacing chips with popcorn once in a while could help you maintain a balanced weight.

May Improve 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.

May Ward Off Disease

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.

Prevents 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.

Diverticulitis is an infection or inflammation of the digestive tract that causes the abnormal formation of pouches in the intestines. 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. Today, there is little evidence that any of these foods cause diverticulitis.

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, swelling of the lips, and a tingling sensation in the mouth. The reaction may be severe on rare occasions, 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, most people can eat air-popped popcorn without any problems or side effects. Due to the increased fiber intake, some people may experience bloating, gas, and loose stools. Any adverse effects are more likely from any trans fats added to popcorn or the chemicals used to flavor the kernels rather than the popcorn itself.

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.

Varieties

There are many varieties of popcorn, from pre-popped to whole kernel popping corn and microwave popcorn. You can find whole kernel popcorn in a range of colors, such as red kernels, and varieties as well.

Pre-popped popcorn is on store shelves in many flavors such as caramel, cheese, butter, herb, and more. You can easily add these toppings to popcorn you pop at home as well.

How to Prepare

If you want to make your popcorn from whole kernels you can, air pop it at home or on the stove top using a bit of oil. You can then sprinkle it with seasonings like nutritional yeast, spices, herbs, parmesan cheese, 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.

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.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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