A Snack That Pops: Popcorn

'The Recipe Doctor' offers healthier options for a favorite snack.

4 min read

Most of my girlfriends equate going to the movies with eating lots of popcorn. To them, not eating popcorn at the movies is like going to the pool wearing your swimsuit and sunscreen -- and not taking a dip in the water. It's just part of the equation: movies + popcorn = enjoyment!

While I don't necessarily feel the same way about movies and popcorn, I agree that popped corn can be irresistible. More than anything, I think it's because of that intoxicating aroma. Popcorn has a long history in the United States, too. And with the invention of microwave popcorn, it's safe to say that it's here to stay in a big way.

Popcorn is getting some positive nutritional press these days with all the (well-deserved) hoopla over the health benefits of whole grains. That's right, popcorn is a whole grain! The nutritional analysis tells the story (take note of the fiber and vitamin and mineral content):

Plain, Air-Popped Popcorn
(4 cups popped)

Fiber: 5 grams
Calories: 122
Protein: 4 grams
Carbohydrate: 25 grams
Fat: 1.4 grams
Saturated fat: 0.2 grams
Monounsaturated fat: 0.4 grams
Polyunsaturated fat: 0.6 grams (0.6 grams omega-6 fatty acids)
B-1, B-2, B-3, B-6, and folic acid: 6% recommended daily allowance (RDA)
Magnesium: 16% RDA
Selenium: 8% RDA
Zinc: 10% RDA

Trouble is, there's a catch when it comes to plain, air-popped popcorn: Does the word "cardboard" mean anything to you? These days, most of us enjoy the taste and convenience of microwave popcorn. But when you check out the nutrition labels on some types of microwave popcorn (like the "movie theatre" flavor), you'll notice a big jump in fat and calories. Take a look:

Orville Redenbacher 'Movie Theatre' Type Microwave Popcorn
(1/3 bag; about 4 cups popped)

Calories: 170
Fat: 12 grams
Saturated fat: 2.5 grams

Trans fats can be another issue with microwave popcorn. Although some brands carry labels that say "no trans fats," their ingredient lists may say otherwise. Most microwave popcorn varieties (other than the "light" types) list "partially hydrogenated soybean oil" as the second ingredient. And partially hydrogenated anything usually translates into some trans fats.

The manufacturers may be able to say "no trans fats" because there is less than 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving size (which in some cases is 1 cup popped). The good news is that if you choose the lower-fat microwave popcorn types, you will be getting both less total fat and less trans fat.

It seems to me when it comes to making healthier popcorn at home, you have three options:

1. You can air-pop it, then add a little bit of butter or good-tasting margarine on top afterward. You can sprinkle some cheddar cheese powder or grated Parmesan over it as well.

2. You can choose one of the light microwave options, which have less fat, fewer calories, and often, less sodium than the regular microwave types.

3. You can pop it the old-fashioned way, over the stove, with some canola oil in a heavy-bottom pan with a lid (left slightly ajar to allow steam to escape). If you use 1/2 cup popcorn in 1 tablespoon of canola oil, here's how one serving (about 4 cups popped) adds up to:

Fat: 6 grams of fat
Saturated fat: 0.3 grams saturated fat
AND HERE'S THE GOOD NEWS! A serving also gives you 0.4 grams of plant omega-3 fatty acids.

OK, the truth is that most of us aren't ready to give up our quick-and-easy microwave popcorn. But let's expand our options a little.

Instead of eating it straight from the microwave bag, how about a trail mix made with popcorn, dried cranberries, and roasted almonds -- maybe even dusted with white chocolate powder? And what would you say to an Italian take on the usual bowl o' buttered popcorn? If you think you don't like light microwave popcorn, maybe one of these easy recipes can change your mind.

Journal as: 1/2 cup "starchy foods with fat"

1 bag of light microwave popcorn, popped (about 9 cups)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons Italian seasoning blend
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese

Put popcorn in a large bowl. Drizzle olive oil evenly over the top, followed by the Italian herbs and grated Parmesan. Toss to blend well. Keep in a sealable plastic bag and eat within 2 days.

Yield: 3 servings

Per serving: 121 calories, 3 g protein, 12.5 g carbohydrate, 6.5 g fat, 1.2 g saturated fat, 2 mg cholesterol, 2.5 g fiber, 125 mg sodium (if using lower-sodium microwave popcorn). Calories from fat: 49%.

Journal as: 1/2 cup "muesli"
OR 1 tablespoon nuts + 1/2 cup "starchy foods without added fat"

1 bag of light microwave popcorn, popped (about 9 cups)
1/2 cup dried cranberries (like cherry-flavored Craisins)
1/2 cup roasted unsalted almonds

Put all ingredients in a large bowl and toss together. Or add half of the ingredients to each of 2 gallon-size sealable plastic bags and toss to mix.

Yield: 4 servings

Per serving: 200 calories, 5 g protein, 25 g carbohydrate, 10 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 4.1 g fiber, 68 mg sodium (if using lower-sodium microwave popcorn and almonds with no salt added). Calories from fat: 43%.