The Health Benefits of Popcorn: A Whole-Grain Snack

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Probably my favorite nutrition fun fact, and one I share with family, friends, and pretty much anyone who will listen, is that popcorn is a whole grain! My reasons for spreading this fact far and wide are twofold: First, I love popcorn (love it!) and second, popcorn has gotten an unfair reputation over the years as a junk food that should be avoided.

In its pure, unadulterated form, popcorn is an incredibly healthy snack. Popcorn is low in calories and fat and a good source of fiber, per data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). You can enjoy 3 cups of air-popped popcorn for fewer than 100 calories and get 3.5 grams (g) of fiber to boot! It’s also a naturally gluten-free food, which is great for anyone with celiac disease or those following a gluten-free diet. Research has even found that popcorn has higher levels of powerful antioxidants known as polyphenols than fresh corn or fruits.

Don’t get me wrong, you can make popcorn into an unhealthy food with the ingredients you add to it and, here in the United States, we seem to love to do just that. The problem is how popcorn is commonly served: coated in butter, salt, cheese, sugar, and candy and mixed with nuts.

Take a tub of movie popcorn, for instance. According to data from the USDA, in one medium tub of movie popcorn with butter you can expect to get 1,190 calories, 107 g fat, 64.6 g saturated fat (nearly five times the daily amount recommended by the American Heart Association), 58 g carbohydrates, and 1,380 milligrams (mg) sodium. Even if you split your tub with someone, these numbers are alarming. And microwave popcorn isn’t much better. One bag is almost 500 calories, according to the USDA, and the packaging can make it feel like a single serving. Plus, as UCLA Health discusses, most microwave popcorn contains chemicals known as perfluoroalkyls and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS), which can be stored in body tissues and increases the risk of high blood pressure, liver damage, thyroid disease, female infertility, and cancer.

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