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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Is popcorn a healthy snack? It can be!
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Eric Uthus

Popcorn is relatively high in fiber - a cup of air-popped popcorn contains just over a gram of fiber.  It also contains 1 gram of protein and 6 grams of carbohydrate.  It contains no cholesterol, it is virtually fat-free (only 0.1 g per cup) and contains only 100 to 150 calories in a serving of 5 popped cups.  You can find a nutrient profile for various popcorn snacks at:  http://ndb.nal.usda.gov then click "Start Your Search Here" and enter "snacks, popcorn".


Popcorn also has a relatively good glycemic index (GI).  The GI, which describes how much blood sugar increases after eating foods that contain carbohydrates, is based on a scale from 1 to 100.  The higher the value the more your blood sugar will rise.  Foods with a high GI are rapidly digested and absorbed; they produce marked fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Low-GI foods, are slowly digested and absorbed; they produce gradual rises in blood sugar and insulin levels. Low GI diets have proven health benefits.  They improve both glucose and lipid levels in people with type 1, as well as type 2, diabetes.  Because they are slowly absorbed, they help in weight control because they help control appetite and delay hunger. 

Air-popped popcorn has a GI of 55 - at the upper end of low-GI foods.  Compare that to an apple with a GI value of 30-40 and 13-16 grams of carbohydrate, or to two slices of white bread with a GI of 88 and 12-14 grams carbohydrates.

As popcorn is 100 percent unprocessed grain, it is a whole-grain food.  One serving can provide about 70 percent of the recommended daily intake of whole grain.  Popcorn also contains a number of vitamins:  folate, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, pantothenic acid, and vitamins B6, A, E and K.  A serving of popcorn contains about 8 percent of the daily value of iron, with lesser amounts of calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. 

The popcorn hull is the source of much of the food's nutritional value.  Hulls contain beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin that are important in maintaining eye health.  They also contain polyphenols with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties believed to protect against cancer and cardiovascular disease.  Researchers at the University of Scranton, PA, recently reported that popcorn contains up to 300 mg polyphenols per serving which is more than 60 percent of the polyphenols provided by fruits and vegetables in the average American diet. 

These health benefits are derived from air-popped popcorn.  They are diminished by adding too much salt or too much butter or margarine.  These should be used sparingly.  For variety, try olive oil instead of butter or margarine.  Instead of salt, try a mixture of dried herbs such as basal and oregano with a dash of salt.  Put this on the air-popped popcorn just after popping as this is when the moisture from the steam released during the popping process helps the seasonings stick to the popcorn.  Or try lightly spraying the popcorn with a non-butter flavored cooking spray before sprinkling on your seasonings.

So next time you hear and smell popcorn popping, remember it can actually be a healthy snack food.  Just prepare it correctly (air-popped), limit the salt, and avoid calorie-loaded toppings.

For more information about healthy snack foods, see MyPlate.gov.


Last Modified: 8/13/2012