Most of us associate popcorn with going to the movies, where the kernels are smothered in butter and salt. Of course, in this form, popcorn isn’t the pinnacle of healthy food. But if prepared correctly, this snack can provide a wide range of health-boosting benefits.
With its high fiber content and great antioxidant profile, here’s why popcorn can become a more regular part of your diet, without guilt or ill effects.
Popcorn: A nutritional powerhouse?
We often think of snacking as an unhealthy habit, but studies have shown that eating small amounts (of the right stuff, of course) between meals is positively associated with overall diet quality in American adults, and can be a great way to hit your recommended daily intake of whole grains. And there are a host of reasons why popcorn is a preferable snack to other movie theater essentials, like chips, candy, or sweet baked goods.
According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, for a typical 2000-calorie diet, the daily recommended intake of grains is roughly 6 ounces, and at least half of that should arrive in our bellies in the form of whole grains. However, only 10% of Americans consume their daily recommended amount of whole grains, according to a study published in Food Science and Human Wellness.
The study, which looked at the health benefits of corn consumption, noted that getting a regular intake of whole grains—cornmeal and popcorn, oatmeal, brown rice, barley, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, and others—has been associated with a 21% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Eating whole grains is also linked with reduced risks of developing type 2 diabetes, due to their magnesium, fiber, and vitamin E content, which helps improve insulin metabolism and regulation.
Packing whole grains into your diet can also be a good way to manage weight, the authors noted. Research shows that whole grain intake is inversely associated with risks of obesity, and corn, in particular, has been shown to have a high satiety effect. Corn’s resistant starches appear to lend it a greater satiety response than many other grains like oats or barley.
This isn’t the only benefit of these resistant starches, of which corn boasts high levels. According to the study, previous research has shown that resistant starches bring bioactive chemicals to the colon, which results in a beneficial effect on blood sugar regulation and colon health.
Corn’s nutritional profile, in general, makes it a powerhouse health food. As for popcorn, 3 cups of air-popped corn contains just 93 calories, along with 18.6 grams of carbohydrates, 1.2 grams of fat, and 0.3 grams of sugar. On top of that, you’ll get 3 grams of protein and 3.6 grams of fiber. Additionally, popcorn features a wide range of vitamins and minerals, including folate, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, pantothenic acid, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin B6, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin K.
As long as you’re not covering it in butter, salt, caramel, or any of the other common toppings, popcorn can be a helpful snack on a weight management or weight loss journey.
Federal dietary guidelines say half of all grains consumed should be whole grains, and popcorn packs more fiber per serving than whole-wheat bread.
“When prepared well, popcorn actually is a pretty good snack,” said Maya Vadiveloo, an assistant professor in the department of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Rhode Island, in an American Heart Association article. “It's stable. It's inexpensive. It's fairly tasty. For people who might be struggling to eat adequate fruits or vegetables or other whole grains, it's a low-risk snack to start.”
Phytochemical content of popcorn
As with all plant-based foods, corn features an array of chemical compounds, which evidence suggests can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases. But in many ways, corn is an outlier.
Corn’s phytochemicals provide it with the highest total antioxidant activity of all common grains, including rice, wheat, and oats. These include phenolic acids, flavonoids, carotenoids, fiber, and resistant starches.
The largest group of phenolic compounds found in corn are its flavonoids, which research has shown can lower risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even some cancers. Corn is also rich in phytosterols, which can help lower LDL and total cholesterol, without impacting HDL cholesterol levels. Additionally, corn features high amounts of lignins, which have cancer-fighting and antioxidant impacts. Beyond this, the vitamin E present in corn has antioxidant properties, boosts the immune system, and can help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease.
The authors of the study note that most of the phytochemicals in corn are in the bran and germ, rather than the endosperm, which means you’ll have to eat the whole grain to get all of its nutritional benefits.
Prepare popcorn the right way
Of course, despite all of popcorn’s benefits, most of us enjoy it most when it’s covered in butter and salt, both of which could have a negative impact on health when consumed excessively. As such, it’s worth considering serving your popcorn seasoned with spices, nuts, or small amounts of salt and oil.
If you serve it right, popcorn could be one of the healthiest snacks to add to your repertoire, as part of a balanced diet.