Is Popcorn A Healthy Snack?

By:    Published: October 19, 2012

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Popcorn has been called everything from "smart food" to "America's favorite snack food". And while popcorn is certainly tasty, research indicates that it does have some health benefits as well. However, do exercise a bit of caution and restraint because loading the popcorn with fat and salt, or scarfing down entire bags will negate any health benefits that the popcorn contains.

Rich In Antioxidants

Believe it or not, popcorn is a great source of antioxidants in the form of polyphenols. The hull of the popcorn (the crunchy part) is rich in polyphenols, the antioxidant that has been proven to prevent cell damage and may also have disease fighting properties.

[Related: 10 Antioxidant-Rich Foods To Protect Your Body]

Polyphenols are the most abundant antioxidant found in the human diet. The effects of these antioxidants have been extensively studied over the past decade and have been shown to play a strong supporting role in the prevention of degenerative conditions such as cardiovascular diseases or cancers. But it has become clear that the mechanisms that make polyphenols so effective go beyond simply modulating the effects of oxidative stress, the kind that causes disease.

Gram for gram, popcorn packs more polyphenols into each kernel than any other fruit or vegetable source. Popcorn contains three times more polyphenols than kidney beans, the highest source of vegetable polyphenols, and four times more polyphenols than cranberries, the best fruit source.

In addition, popcorn also contains another antioxidant called ferulic acid, which is found in other foods like beans and other cereal grains, and has been shown to have therapeutic effects against a number of diseases because of its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

High In Fiber

Fiber plays an important role in the human diet. It helps to regulate the digestive system and also helps to keep bad cholesterol levels low. The recommended daily intake of fiber for women is 21 to 25 grams and 30 to 38 grams per day for men, but few American's manage to consume the recommended amount each day. The good news for popcorn lovers is that popcorn is a good source of fiber. Popcorn contains three grams of fiber in a single three cup serving.

[Related: Creating Your Own High Fiber Diet Plan]

In the past, people with diverticular problems had been told to avoid popcorn along with nuts, seeds and other high-fiber foods because it was thought that these foods would cause a flare up of the problem. But a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that this isn't the case. In fact, the study showed that diets high in fiber rich food help reduce the stress on the digestive system and allow it to function more efficiently. Fiber helps to soften the waste in the digestive system and allows it to pass easier, thereby reducing the stress on the system. So those people who are concerned about diverticular problems should be eating more fiber, not less.

Low Calorie Snack Food

Popcorn is a great snack food option for those who are watching their weight. The reason is that pound for pound, popcorn contains fewer calories than any other snack food. Each cup of popped popcorn only contains about 30 calories, which comes in far below the 150 calories in a single cup of potato chips or the 220 calories in a cup of "snack mix". The caveat here is that the popcorn must be air popped without the addition of oil or butter because this can seriously increase the calorie count. But this doesn't mean it has to be tasteless.

This also doesn't mean that a person can live by popcorn alone. Experts caution against consuming too much popcorn in place of other fruits and vegetables and adding things like oil, salt, sugar or butter that would make it much unhealthier.

Preparing Popcorn

While it may seem like there is little difference between microwave popcorn and the old-fashioned variety, the fact is that there is a world of difference. Not so much in the kernels themselves, but in the preparation. Microwave popcorn contains chemicals such as diacetyl and other compounds in their "butter flavoring" that have been shown to cause lung diseases if inhaled, which means no smelling the popcorn.

Also, most microwave popcorn bags contain compounds called perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs for short, which are substances that have been shown to suppress the immune functions of children and cause cancer in lab animals. While manufacturers are working to phase out these chemicals, for the time being, they are still present.

But there is a simple way to prepare air popped popcorn at home, without all the chemicals. Simply place 3 to 4 tablespoons of popcorn in a brown paper sack (the kind used for packing lunches) and fold the top over to seal it closed. Microwave it for about 2 minutes, or until the popping sound slows down. It might take a few tries to get it exactly right since microwaves vary, but it's worth the effort.

Certain Popcorn Varieties Can Be Unhealthy

It's also important to remember that things like kettle corn or caramel corn don't fall into the healthy category. Yes, they are made from popcorn, but the addition of copious amounts of butter, salt and sugar make them extremely unhealthy and they should only be enjoyed in small amounts occasionally.

Healthy popcorn doesn't mean skimping on flavor. Ramping up flavor can be as simple as spraying with vegetable oil and then sprinkling with black pepper and some parmesan cheese. For a sweet treat, try sprinkling with cinnamon sugar or adding some dark chocolate for some added antioxidants. Mix with dried fruits for a healthy snack. The possibilities are endless.

[Related: Eating Dark Chocolate For Weight Loss]

Bottom Line

All of the health benefits of popcorn can be undone quickly if the popcorn isn't prepared correctly. While popcorn itself is healthy, all of the butter, oil, salt, cheese, caramel or sugar that people add to it is not. And while there are several emerging trends in popcorn, the fact still remains that regular air-popped popcorn is the best. A small, unbuttered tub of popcorn at the movie theater weighs in at more than 650 calories and has more than 30 grams of saturated fat, much more than what a person should consume in a day.

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