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Health Benefits of Popcorn

Published May 30, 2012        by Sarah

Image by Steve Snodgrass on FlickrPopcorn is a healthy snack.  Wait!  Before you crack open that holiday popcorn tin, head off to the movies and get an extra-jumbo bucket of it, consider that the health benefits come from the plain, unadorned kernels that are, ideally, air-popped.  All the butter, salt, cheese, and other toppings we put on may add to the delicious taste and aroma, but they also add to the calorie content and fat count.  It is easy to enjoy both the wonderful flavor of popcorn and its healthy attributes.  We’ll show you how.

First, don’t go to the movies!  Movie theater popcorn is tempting – and that’s why they load it up with butter, or butter flavoring, and salt.  The smell makes us throw down large amounts of money for this normally very inexpensive snack.  It’ll cost you about $8 for a tub of popcorn; but it’ll cost you more in terms of your health.

A large bucket of popcorn with butter has 1238 calories, 78 grams of fat, and 49 grams of saturated fat.  If you cut back to a medium with no butter, you are cutting fat, but still eating 951 calories!  And who gets a medium with no butter at the movies?  According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a medium container of popcorn with butter has more fat that bacon, eggs, a Big Mac, fries, and a steak dinner – combined!

Luckily, the majority of popcorn that Americans eat (and we eat over 17 billion quarts of it each year) is made at home.  This cuts the calorie and fat potential, but with movie theater-style microwave options or our choice of toppings, we may not be doing much better than when we’re watching the latest blockbuster.

As a little incentive to make healthier popcorn, let’s take a look at the health benefits:

  • Popcorn is a whole grain, which are essential for a healthy, balanced diet.  The “germ” part of the grain is packed with vitamins and minerals.  It also has protein and healthy fats.
  • The coating around the kernel is the bran, and this contains nutrients, fiber, antioxidants, and B vitamins.
  • The softer inside of the kernel has starch and protein, with a small amount of vitamins and minerals.
  • Popcorn is a good source of antioxidants, particularly polyphenols.  These protect your body from aging free radicals.  Research shows that they can help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.  Fruits and veggies also have polyphenols – and popcorn has just about as much.
  • Fiber.  This keeps you regular, fills you up, and keeps your blood glucose levels even.  Not bad.
  • Before we load it up with high-fat, high-calorie toppings, popcorn is low in calories and fat.  It has no sugar or salt.  One cup of air-popped popcorn has only 31 calories.  Enjoy three cups with a little seasoning, and you have a superb sub-100 calorie snack.

You can enjoy the taste of popcorn as well as its health benefits.  The first step is to air-pop your kernels.  Poppers are inexpensive at box and discount stores.  After it’s done, spritz a little olive oil (a healthy fat) on the popcorn.  This will help your spices stick to the fluffy popcorn better.  Try:

  • Garlic powder
  • Paprika
  • Dried oregano
  • Parmesan cheese.
  • Cinnamon and a touch (just a sprinkle) of sugar or Stevia
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Wheat germ
  • Taco seasoning
  • Hot cocoa powder
  • Curry powderImage by Founding Farmers on Flickr
  • Pumpkin pie spice
  • Honey (honey isn’t low calorie, but it is packed with health benefits)

If you don’t have an air popper, put a handful of popcorn kernels into a brown paper lunch bag.  Put it in the microwave just like you would pre-made microwave popcorn.  When the popping slows, take it out.  Drizzle it with olive oil and your choice of toppings.

Popcorn can be a wonderful snack to satisfy both sweet and savory cravings, and a popcorn gift basket can even be a wonderful (and healthy) present for others!  Just lay off the movie theater-style butter and salt; you can all enjoy these tastes if you drizzle instead of pour!  Otherwise, experiment with other flavorings and enjoy!

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