Heart-Healthy Popcorn

by Diane, M.P.H, M.S.

Popcorn, or popping corn, is corn (maize) which expands from the kernel and puffs up when heated. Corn is able to pop because, like sorghum, quinoa, and millet, its’ kernels have a hard, moisture-sealed hull and a dense starchy interior. This allows pressure to build inside the kernel until an explosive “pop” results. Some strains of corn are now cultivated specifically as popping corns.

There are many techniques for popping corn. Commercial large-scale popcorn machines were invented by Charles Cretors in the late 19th century. Many small-scale home methods for popping corn also exist, with the most popular in the United States being prepackaged (7).

In addition to being a popular snack food, popcorn also has non-food applications, ranging from holiday decorations to packaging materials.



Popcorn was first discovered thousands of years ago by Native Americans. It is one of the oldest forms of corn: evidence of popcorn dating as early as 4700 B.C. was found in Peru and 3600 B.C. in New Mexico. Popcorn kernels have also been found in the remains of Central American settlements dating back almost 7000 years (7, 8, 12)!

The English who came to America in the 16th and 17th centuries learned about popcorn from Native Americans.

During the Great Depression, popcorn was relatively cheap at 5–10 cents a bag and became popular. While other businesses failed, the popcorn business thrived and became a source of income for many struggling farmers. During World War II, sugar rations reduced candy production, causing Americans to eat three times more popcorn than they had before.

At least six localities (all in the Midwestern United States) claim to be the “Popcorn Capital of the World”:

  • Ridgway, Illinois
  • Valparaiso, Indiana
  • Van Buren,Indiana
  • Schaller, Iowa
  • Marion, Ohio
  • North Loup, Nebraska

The United States Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) states that most corn used for popcorn production is specifically planted for this purpose and is grown in Nebraska and Indiana, with increasing area in Texas (13).

As the result of an elementary school project, popcorn became the official state snack food of Illinois (4)!


Nutritional value:

Air-popped popcorn is a wonderful whole grain snack that is naturally high in dietary fiber, low in calories and fat (20 calories and 1 gram of fat in 1 cup of air-popped corn), and contains no sodium, sugar, cholesterol, saturated animal fat, or trans fat. However, how we pop the corn kernels and what we add to season the popcorn can turn this healthy snack into an unhealthy one high in calories, fat, and sodium. If you want to eat a healthier popcorn snack, keep it as simple and natural as possible.

According to “Jolly Time: American’s Best Yellow Pop Corn,” one serving (2 tablespoons of unpopped corn kernels) should yield about 5 cups of air-popped popcorn containing a total of 110 calories and 7 grams of fiber, or 20 calories and 1 gram of fiber per cup of air-popped popcorn (1). I have not  been so lucky. Usually, a half cup of this or other brands of unpopped corn cooked in my microwave produces about 4 cups (1 quart) when popped.


Nutrition Facts: Popcorn, No Additives (1):

Serving Size: 2 Tbsp. (33 g) Unpopped or 1 Cup Air-popped

Calories:                                       110                                                                    20

Calories from fat:                        10                                                                     2

Total fat:                                       1 g    (2% Daily Value)                               0 g    (0%)

Saturated fat:                    0 g                                                                    0 g    (0%)

Trans fat:                           0 g                                                                    0 g

Cholesterol:                                0 mg  (0%)                                                     0 mg  (0%)

Sodium:                                       0 mg                                                                 0 mg  (0%)

Total Carbohydrate:                26 g     (9% Daily Value)                              5 g    (2%)

Dietary Fiber:                    7 g     (27% Daily Value)                            1 g    (5%)

Sugar:                                <1 g                                                                    0 g

Protein:                                         4 g                                                                  <1 g


Health risks:

Most processed popcorn snacks, especially microwavable varieties, contain chemicals, saturated fats including partially-hydrogenated trans fats, and other unhealthy additives. Microwaveable popcorn represents a special case, since it is designed to be cooked along with its flavoring agents. One of these common artificial-butter flavorants, diacetyl, has been implicated in causing respiratory ailments (3).

Movie theatre popcorn is often enhanced with unhealthy artificial butter, salt, and/or sugar. In the mid-1990s, The Center for Science in the Public Interest (C.S.P.I.) produced a report about “Movie Popcorn” which became the subject of a widespread publicity campaign. The movie theaters surveyed used coconut oil to pop the corn, and then topped it with butter or margarine. The report stated that “a medium-size buttered popcorn contains more fat than a breakfast of bacon and eggs, a Big Mac and fries, and a steak dinner combined.” The practice continues today! For example, according to DietFacts.com, a small popcorn from Regal Cinema Group, the largest theater chain in the United States, still contains 29 g of saturated fat, as much as three Big Macs (6) and the equivalent of a full day-and-a-half’s reference daily intake (2, 5, 10, 11)

Popcorn is included on the list of foods that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends not serving to children under four, because of the risk of choking. Special “hull-less” popcorn has been developed that offers an alternative for small children and for people with braces or other dental problems who may otherwise need to avoid popcorn (7).


Storage: Store unpopped corn kernels in an air-tight container.


Tips to keep popcorn a healthy snack:

  • Choose organic popcorn to reduce your intake of pesticide residues: Conventional (non-organic)  popcorn has been listed on the Food and Drug Administration’s (F.D.A.) top ten of the most commonly contaminated foods with pesticides and chemicals.
  • Learn to pop your own popcorn and avoid the microwave packets (There are still health concerns about microwave popcorn packets and the chemicals added to promote popping and less sticking): (1) Use an electric air popper to eliminate the need for oil or fat. Always follow the manufacturer’s directions. (2) If you have a microwave, but no air popper, an easy and healthy way to pop corn kernels is in a paper lunch bag, in the microwave. Pour about 1/4 -1/3 cup of popcorn kernels into the bag. Fold the top of the bag a few times, or use a small piece of tape to secure the folded top, leaving plenty of room in the rest of the bag for popping. Allow about 2-3 minutes for popping, depending upon the wattage of your microwave oven. Stop the microwave when the popping sounds slow down considerably but are not finished, or the popcorn may start to burn. Pour popcorn into a bowl and add desired toppings. The bag may be reused. (3) No butter or oil is necessary for popping when a wire popper is used over coals or the stove. This method work best for 1/4 cup of corn kernels at a time. (4) To make popcorn the old-fashioned way, heat a large pan on top of the stove, dry or with about 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil (the kernels will pop better with heated oil). Add 1/4 to 1/3 cup corn kernels, place a lid on the pot, and shake gently back and forth, with one hand holding the pan handle and one holding the lid to keep them together, over medium-high heat. Allow steam to escape from the popping kernels. Remove the pan from heat as soon as popping stops, and pour the popped kernels into a large bowl. Season to taste.
  • Avoid adding butter, salt, or artificial flavorings to popcorn
  • Use healthier popcorn toppings: (1) In place of butter or salt, try adding herbs, salt-free spices or seasoning. Stir in some curry or garlic powder, rosemary and black pepper (my favorite), or your favorite mixture of natural spices. (2) For spicy or chili-flavored popcorn, add cayenne, or salt-free chili seasoning, or chili-flavored oil. (3) Use olive oil in place of butter. Otherwise, use unsalted butter in moderation. Olive oil is a healthier alternative to butter, as it contains no hydrogenated oils or trans fats, yet still tastes delicious and buttery. Stir olive oil (or melted organic butter) into popcorn first to help seasonings stick. (4) The nutty flavor of cheese and butter (without the fat) can be gotten by sprinkling popcorn with some nutritional yeast. Nutritional yeast provides B vitamins and is an easy and delicious way to make your popcorn snack more healthy.
  • For sweetened popcorn, drizzle a bit of agave nectar, honey, or maple syrup over the popped kernels and stir: Just remember that while these sweeteners are relatively healthy in moderation, they are still metabolized by the body as sugar.
  • Use olive oil or water, instead of butter (a source of artery-clogging, saturated animal fat), to help your toppings stick to popcorn. Place a bit of water in a clean spray bottle with a fine mist sprayer, spritz the popcorn lightly, and stir in or sprinkle on your healthy toppings.
  • Healthy trail mix to go: Mix plain popcorn with nuts, dried fruits (e.g., raisins, apricots, dates, figs), coconut, granola, and/or vegan chocolate chips, for a delicious snack.


Shake popcorn with one or more of the following seasonings in a large paper bag to make mixing easy:

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • Black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Curry powder
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary, with or without freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder with or without black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • Chopped, unsalted nuts
  • Dried fruits like natural raisins, apricots, dates, figs, coconut
  • Granola
  • Toasted sesame seeds
  • Wheat germ, ground flax seeds, or nutritional yeast

Rachel Ray’s “Sweet Sesame Five-Spice Popcorn” Recipe (9):

Used extensively in chinese cooking, this pungent mixture of five ground spices usually consists of equal parts of cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, szechuan peppercorns. Prepackaged five-spice powder is available in Asian markets and most supermarkets.

Total time: 10 minutes

Prep: 2 minutes

Cook: 8 minutes

Serves 4-6


  • 1/2 cup unpopped corn kernels
  • 1/4 cup sugar (I would use less)
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon five-spice powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt (I would use less)
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds


Place unpopped corn kernels, sugar, oil, five-spice powder, and salt in a large kettle or pot with a tight-fitting lid over medium heat. When corn begins to pop, shake the pot constantly. When popping slows, remove from heat, sprinkle with sesame seeds, and transfer popped kettle corn to a bowl.



  1. “Jolly Time: American’s Best Yellow Pop Corn.” Popcorn product produced by American Pop Corn Company, Sioux City, Iowa, 51102. 2010.
  2. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) Daily Reference Values.” Fda.gov. 01/13/10. Retrieved 01/20/10.
  3. Geis, Sonya. “Flavoring Suspected in Illness: California Considers Banning Chemical Used in Microwave Popcorn.” The Washington Post. 05/07/07.
  4. “Governor Signs Official Snack Bill: School Project Becomes Law.” (Press release). Office of the Governor: Rod R. Blagojevich-Governor (08/04/03). Illinois Government News Network. Retrieved 08/25/07.
  5. Grimes, William. “How About Some Popcorn With Your Fat?” The New York Times. Published 05/01/94. Retrieved 01/20/10.
  6. McDonald’s Corporation Nutritional Information.
  7. “Popcorn.” Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia. 02/15/12.
  8. “Popcorn Was Popular in Ancient Peru, Discovery Suggests.” History.com. 01/20/12.
  9. Ray, Rachel. “Sweet Sesame Five-Spice Popcorn.” Rachaelray.com: Rachel Ray’s Official Website. (Source: www.rachaelray.com/recipe.php?recipe_id=1635).
  10. “Regal Cinemas Nutrition Information.” Dietfacts.com. 10/06/04. Retrieved 01/20/10.
  11. “Regal Entertainment: About Us.” Regmovies.com. Retrieved 01/20/10.
  12. “Study suggests ancient Peruvians ‘ate popcorn’.” BBC News. 01/19/12. Retrieved 01/26/12.
  13. United States Department of Agriculture-1982 Popcorn Report.”


Sathishkumar March 11, 2012 at 2:14 am

Interesting! We’ve been on a popcorn kick the last few mtnohs and I’d passed the cold oil method on to hubby (our official popcorn chef) after seeing Ruhlman’s tweets. Last night we swapped the typical hot oil / vented top method for the cold method and our far from scientific findings (on electric stove) are thus: it went faster, more kernals popped, a few were slightly scorched (he says it’s because it went so fast he probably kept the pot over the heat for too long), the kernels were tough and cardboardy. He vented the top, so between that and overcooking, we can’t blame the method. You’ve inspired me to be more exact and test again. Though I’m not the popper, I would think that one benefit of the cold method is that you can leave the lid tightly closed, making the shaking easier. Looking forward to an excuse for more popcorn soon!

Andypandy December 29, 2012 at 8:06 am

Just reading your blog while I’m thnkiing about doing a 28 day challenge. To get the nutritional yeast to stick try misting (using a spray bottle) the popcorn with low salt tamari sauce or use Bragg’s Liquid Amino, then sprinkle on the yeast. It is really yummy! My kids love popcorn this way better than the greasy butter coated style.

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