Maybe you don’t eat popcorn for dinner à la Olivia Pope (with a glass of red wine, of course), but popcorn is a popular snack among the health-conscious crowd. It’s low in calories and easy to prepare, and it’s practically a vegetable. OK, I was kidding on that last one.
All joking aside, popcorn can be a healthy snack. It’s high in fiber (which can improve digestion) and won’t spike your blood sugar like some more sugary snacks. On the flip side, it can also destroy your diet and trouble your tummy, and some varieties may be downright dangerous. Before you throw all your popcorn in the garbage can, though, let’s take a closer look at those little kernels.
The best option when it comes to popcorn is to make your own at home, either on the stovetop or in a popcorn popper. All you need is a bag of kernels, some butter or coconut oil, and your favorite seasonings. Most containers of popcorn kernels have the old-school popping directions printed right on the bag. My favorite seasoning combo is salt and cinnamon, but you could go spicy with some cayenne powder, savory with garlic powder and parsley, or try one of these delectable recipes.
If making your own popcorn sounds about as appealing as getting your eyebrows waxed, there are some brands out there that are doing the popcorn game right.
How can you tell if your popcorn is of the not-so-healthy variety? Turn that bag (or box) around and take a look at the ingredients and nutrition information. If you see partially hydrogenated oils, loads of sugar and fat, or artificial flavors, sweeteners, colors, or preservatives, put that popcorn right back on the shelf and look for a brand with simpler ingredients. Unfortunately, the biggest offenders are often the most indulgent flavors, like caramel corn or chocolate-drizzled kettle corn (don’t shoot the messenger), but you can always make your own perfectly sweetened popcorn at home.
Even the healthiest popcorn can cause problems if you inhale the entire bag in one sitting. Some people can digest popcorn without any issue, but others may experience gas, bloating, and discomfort after eating popcorn. It seems to be pretty individualized, so you probably already know if this applies to you. Any added ingredients can also possibly cause digestive distress. For example, if dairy isn’t your friend, you may want to stay away from heavily buttered popcorn.
If you’ve ever heard that microwave popcorn can cause cancer, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that microwave popcorn does not pose an increased cancer risk. The bad news is that there is one ingredient, diacetyl, that has been shown to cause an irreversible respiratory illness called popcorn lung. According to the University of California, Berkeley, diacetyl is used to give some microwave popcorns their buttery flavor, but when inhaled regularly it can cause this potentially fatal lung disease. This has historically mostly affected popcorn factory employees who are constantly exposed to the chemical. Most microwave popcorn manufacturers have switched to other chemicals, but because these chemicals are only listed as “artificial flavorings” on ingredients’ lists, it’s best to steer clear of any microwave popcorn with artificial ingredients.
Bottom line: popping up the occasional bowl of popcorn can be a totally healthy snack option as long as you know what to look for. So, which side are you on: Team “Make Your Own” or Team “Buy the Bag”?