Popcorn belongs to a very specific category of foods: the ones that get simultaneously described as total health saboteurs and nutritious health saviors. To answer the question “Is popcorn healthy?” once and for all, let’s go back to basics: the kernels themselves. The popcorn kernels used to produce a single serving of this beloved snack contain more antioxidants than all the fruits and vegetables most people eat in a day combined, according to the findings of two researchers at the University of Scranton. And popcorn kernels are also teeming with nutrients: calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, folate, niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, and vitamins B, A, E, and K.
As soon as we start turning those kernels into popcorn, things get complicated. Commercially-prepared popcorn—like the kind at your local movie theater, or premade on grocery shelves, or ready to be conveniently popped in your microwave—tends to be laden with potentially harmful chemicals. Even if you make your own popcorn, you’ll want to be strategic about the kernels you use, how you prepare them, and what you put on top of them. Here are five tips on how to make popcorn healthy.
The enticing buttery flavor of most ready-made popcorn contains a chemical called diacetyl, which has been linked to severe lung damage—nicknamed “popcorn lung”— in workers who come into frequent contact with it. It’s less clear how this chemical affects popcorn consumers, but experts feel there’s definitely reason to be cautious about it. And many kinds of microwave popcorn, even organic, unbuttered varieties, come in bags coated with a chemical that releases perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) when heated. Once you ingest PFOA, also found in nonstick cookware, it lingers in your body for a long, long time. It’s been linked to detrimental health outcomes like tumor growth and damage to the liver, prostate, kidney, and reproductive system. Plus, even if you’re lucky enough to stumble onto a variety made without those wellness-eroding chemicals, you’re likely be getting way more sodium than you need. And thanks to the large portion size of most bags, it’s easy to eat to the point of feeling uncomfortably full.
Popcorn crops are often sprayed with pesticides containing neonicotinoid chemicals. Not only does this class of insecticide have a devastating impact on honeybees and other pollinators, but it also adversely affects human health. In 2017, Melissa Perry, chairman of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, led a team who pored over all the existing data on neonicotinoids and human health. Perry and her team found links between exposure to neonicotinoids and memory loss, finger tremors, congenital heart defects, anencephaly, and autism spectrum disorders. Be sure to pick organic, pesticide-free popcorn kernels. And while the nutrition facts don’t vary much between the different kernel varieties, you may want to experiment to see which size, shape, texture, and flavor you like best. Check out this helpful primer on types of popcorn kernels for more info.
Making your own popcorn is the best way to ensure it’s free of potentially harmful chemicals. Both methods—air-popping and preparing on the stovetop—have benefits. Air popping uses no oil, so until you start adding toppings, all you’re getting are the nutrients found in the kernels themselves. Making popcorn on the stovetop, though, can be a convenient option that requires no single-use kitchen tools. All you’ll need is a large pot (without a nonstick coating!) and a healthy cooking fat. Popping it in oil will add calories, but also offers the chance to incorporate a healthy, satiating serving of fat.
Hopefully you already know that fat can be super good for you. The source of the fat and how it’s processed can make a huge difference when it comes to the health benefits you experience. When you’re purchasing fat from animal sources, look for words like grass-fed or pasture-raised—these will have the highest concentration of nutrients. And for plant-based fats, terms like organic and cold-pressed can be good indicators of how the ingredients were sourced and processed. For making popcorn, which requires fairly high heat (450°F is the sweet spot), you’ll want to use a fat with a high smoke point. When fats are heated past their smoke points, they begin to break down and leech free radicals into your food, which can lead to systemic inflammation. You’ll want to pick something with a high concentration of saturated fats, which remain stable at high temperatures. Some good options for making popcorn include grass-fed ghee, coconut oil, avocado oil, and rendered animal fats like lard and tallow.
The execution of this tip will vary depending on your personal tastes. If you have a sweet tooth, you might be drawn to toppings like cinnamon or dark chocolate. If you prefer the savory side, try mixing in herbs like rosemary or spices like smoked paprika. And you can always add a dash of spice with some cayenne or wasabi. There’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned salt and butter, either, as long as you’re not overdoing it! Hopefully it goes without saying that you should use real butter, not some sort of spray-on butter flavor, which will almost certainly contain scary chemicals. If you’re not adverse to adding fat, a drizzle of high-quality EVOO can also be a wonderful and healthy addition to a bowl of popcorn.
This “endlessly customizable” recipe is just as convenient as store bought microwave popcorn, plus it contains none of the chemicals and costs less!
Ali of Gimme Some Oven swears that nutritional yeast, or “nooch,” is the secret to the best ever butter-free popcorn. Check out this video to see how she makes this super-yummy, super good for you popcorn.
Possibly the healthiest popcorn recipe out there, featuring 4 cups of kale! It does require some prep work—basically, you make kale chips, then turn them into powder, then sprinkle them on your popcorn—but the flavor payoff is totally worth it.
If you’ve ever impulsively poured hot sauce on popcorn, then immediately regretted that choice as it turned into a soggy mess, this is the recipe for you. By pairing classic buffalo sauce and caramel, you get a spicy, sweet coating on each popped kernel.
The key to this perfectly-spiced popcorn is to blend all the seasonings into the oil, let the flavors fully saturate it, and then stir in the popcorn.
It’s a cocktail and a snack all in one! Just to be clear, the recipe contains 1 teaspoon of tequila, so you’re not actually going to get tipsy if you eat this popcorn.
This simple, adaptable recipe yields a truly decadent, yet truly healthy, treat. And trust us, you want to toast your coconut flakes. Your patience will be amply rewarded when you toss them with the popcorn, chocolate, and sea salt, then dig in!