As my second-grade daughter and I recently cozied up in front of a movie with a huge bowl of popcorn, she asked me if popcorn is healthy. Her friends told her it isn’t, but we make it a lot as a snack, so she was confused. This perplexity isn’t surprising, because popcorn can be one of the least nutritious snacks or one of the healthiest.
The popcorn found at most movie theaters is made with unhealthy oils, artificial butter, food dyes and tons of salt. In fact, a study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that some medium-sized movie theater popcorn buckets contain up to 1,200 calories and 60 grams of saturated fat. Whoa! Microwavable bags aren’t much better; they, too, usually include unhealthy oils, artificial flavors and colors, and preservatives.
Stove-top and air-popped varieties of popcorn can be an improbably nutritious snack, if cooked with the right oil, tossed with the right toppings and enjoyed in the right ratios. Popcorn kernels are whole grains with the germ and the bran intact, which is where the majority of nutrients lie. These little kernels are fiber-rich, low in calories and full of antioxidants.
They also contain some water. When the kernels are heated, the water molecules vibrate until the pressure pops the shell. Fresh kernels contain more water, and will pop faster and often into bigger pieces. So pitch that popcorn in the back of your cabinet.
When popping on the stove, don’t fret about using oil. If you choose wisely, such as coconut, avocado, olive or grapeseed, this oil can provide healthy fats helpful for energy, brain and hormone health. Oil also contributes flavor and prevents the kernels from burning as they pop. But do avoid corn, soybean and sunflower oils, which are usually highly processed and contain more of the less-healthful omega-6 fatty acids.
Start with a heavy-bottomed pan that is light enough to lift and shake but deep enough for the popcorn to move around. Heat the oil over medium heat so it doesn’t burn; if you see smoke coming from the oil that means it oil is burning, and the smoke will cause the popcorn to taste burned.
Add two kernels of popcorn to the hot oil; once they have popped you know the oil is the right temperature. Add the rest of the popcorn and cover. After a minute, shake the pot and tip the lid slightly to let some of the steam escape. Leaving the steam in the pan can make the popcorn soggy. Shake constantly so the unpopped kernels make their way down to the hot oil and the popped ones rise to the top. Continuously pour the top layer of popped corn into a bowl as it is ready, giving the unpopped kernels more room to do their thing.
A $20 air popper can make hundreds of healthy snacks. The key to tasty air-popped popcorn (and stove-top for that matter) is to salt and flavor as the corn pours out of the machine to ensure an evenly and well-seasoned snack. While the popcorn is warm, use a mister to uniformly spray oil onto the kernels, or toss them with melted coconut oil, melted grass-fed butter or room-temperature flaxseed oil. Then, while the popcorn is still sticky and steaming sprinkle on your favorite toppings.
•Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and sea salt
•Olive oil and black pepper
•Dried dill, onion powder, grated lemon peel and salt
•Dried cherries, raw cacao nibs, unsweetened coconut, almonds and sea salt
•Toasted sesame oil and crumbled nori
•Balsamic vinegar and sea salt
•Coconut oil, cayenne, paprika and raw cocoa powder
•Grass-fed butter and truffle salt
•Honey, crushed red pepper flakes and toasted almond slices
•Ghee, toasted mustard seeds and chili powder
For healthier kettle corn
Pop popcorn in coconut oil, toss with a combination of coconut oil and flaxseed oil, sprinkle with a mixture of ¼ cup coconut sugar and two teaspoons sea salt.
For healthier cheesy popcorn
Toss popped corn with flaxseed oil or melted grass-fed butter, a few tablespoons of nutritional or Brewer’s yeast (more for a cheesier flavor) and sea salt. Mix well with a wooden spoon or spatula.
It can be far too easy to eat far too much of any of these tasty, healthier blends, so bear in mind that one serving is two tablespoons of unpopped kernels, or four to five cups of popped corn.
If you want to buy popcorn from the store, opt for these healthier brands:
•Lesser Evil Buddha Bowl
•Boom Chicka Pop
First published in The Washington Post on April 10, 2019.