It’s light and fluffy, salty and crunchy. Sometimes buttery, it can also be made sweet or savory. Hot or room temperature, it’s a late-night favorite both at the movies and at home. More than 17 billion quarts are consumed by Americans every year. In fact, the global market size was about $5.2 billion in 2021.
Popcorn is a favorite for many, but is it a healthy snack or a guilty pleasure? To get all your popcorn questions answered, we spoke with Barbara Olendzki, an associate professor of population and quantitative health sciences at UMass Chan Medical School.
Is popcorn a healthy food or unhealthy?
It may not be either one. While it doesn’t bring a lot of nutritional value, it is not dense in calories if you eat one serving and keep the butter and salt to a minimum.
When asked if popcorn is healthy, Olendzki responded, “Not really, no. One cup has about 116 calories, 1 gram of protein, 6 carbohydrates, and if you only put on about a tablespoon of butter and salt, you get 10 grams of fat.”
For context, most of us eat three cups in a sitting, Olendzki says.
She adds that because of the way popcorn is cooked to expand, “it will quickly digest and turn into carbs in the body, which is problematic for some.”
What are some of the downsides of popcorn?
Olendzki says one of the downsides of popcorn is that we can just keep eating it. And eating it. And eating it. Our brain/gut doesn’t tell us when we’ve had enough, so we just continue to eat it. She says this is not the case with other foods, like carrots.
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Additionally, there has been some controversy around butter flavorings. While they may be safe to eat, breathing in these chemicals, particularly diacetyl, may cause damage to your airways. However, most manufacturers have removed diacetyl from their products.
Is it OK to eat a lot of popcorn?
As mentioned above, popcorn isn’t the healthiest food out there. People also tend to keep eating because of the calming, crunch factor, says Olendzki.
“If you are looking for more nutrition in your snacks, try crunchy veggies or roasted veggies or edamame! Edamame is very nice and nutritious.”
What is the healthiest way to pop popcorn?
“If you don’t want to overdo it, pop it with water and don’t add salt,” Olendzki says. “You won’t be as tempted to keep eating it. Oh, and if you have diabetes, add oil (or butter). It slows down the uptake of carbohydrates into the bloodstream so your pancreas can handle it.”
The bottom line? If popcorn is one of your favorites, there’s no reason to give it up – just be mindful of your portions, and sometimes consider other crunchy snacks instead.
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