Is popcorn really healthy?

The humble popcorn has been reinvented as an every day snack, a healthy alternative to chips. Its even available in single serve packs, ideal for kids lunch boxes, labelled as, ‘gluten free, vegan, high in fibre, no artificial colours or preservatives.’ And if you are tired of the old butter and salt movie popcorn flavour, your in luck, there has been an explosion of gourmet flavours, including salted caramel, cheddar, chilli jam and wasabi.  But are these a healthy snack option or simply another product loaded with excess sugar, fat and salt?

It all boils down to how the popcorn is popped and what flavourings are put onto.  Air popped popcorn is when dry corn kernels are added to electric poppers, which heat up and pop the kernels. When nothing is added, these are a healthy whole grain snack, which is low in calories and contains no fat, sodium or cholesterol. It only contains minimal vitamins and minerals, however it is high in fibre and a far better option that chips.

The problem is, many of the pre-packaged, store bought popcorns are not air popped and flavour free. Instead they use oils and added flavourings to there products. As an example, I have included the ingredients list and nutritional information of a popular supermarket brand of salted caramel flavour. As you can see, there are 11 ingredients, instead of one and if read the per 100g information there is a high fat and sugar content.


Sunflower Oil
Cane Sugar
Caramelised Sugar
Corn Starch
Natural Flavours
Natural Colours (Paprika Extract)
Anti-Oxidant (Calcium Lactate)
Food Acid (Ascorbic)

Nutritional Information

Servings per pack: 5.5   —   Serving size: 20 g
Nutrients QTY/Serve(1) % Daily Intake* QTY/100g
Energy 416 kJ 5 2080 kJ
Protein 1.3 g 3 6.3 g
– Total 4.2 g 6 21.1 g
– Saturated 0.4 g 2 2.0 g
– Trans 0.0 g 0.0 g
– Polyunsaturated 0.6 g 2.9 g
– Monounsaturated 3.2 g 15.8 g
– Cholesterol 0.0 mg 0.0 mg
– Total 13.4 g 4 67.1 g
– Sugars 4.4 g 5 22.0 g
Dietary Fibre 1.4 g 5 6.9 g
Sodium 109 mg 5 544 mg
Potassium 34 mg 170 mg

As a comparison, below is an air popped, sweat and salty flavoured popcorn. As you can see, it has a much lower fat and sugar content, as well as a much smaller list of ingredients.


Popping Corn (75%), Sunflower Oil, Seasoning (Sugar, Salt, Mineral Salt (508), Natural Flavour)

Nutrition Information

Servings per package: 1
Serving size: 100g
Nutrition Avg Qty Per Serving Avg Qty Per 100g
Energy Approx. 358kJ Approx. 1790kJ
Protein Approx. 1.7g Approx. 8.5g
Fat, total Approx. 2.2g Approx. 10.9g
– saturated Approx. 1g Approx. 1g
Carbohydrate Approx. 13.9g Approx. 69.5g
– sugars Approx. 1.2g Approx. 5.8g
Sodium Approx. 22mg Approx. 110m

Pay close attention to the serving size on the nutrition information. For example, one packet I read recently had a serving size of 20g per portion, so the nutritional information was based on about a handful of popcorn.

One thing to also consider is portion size. We are all accustomed to going to the movies and spending an extra $1 to upgrade to the jumbo size ‘bucket’ of popcorn, covered in buttery, salty goodness. And because the average movie lasts about 2 hours, there is plenty of time to work your way through the whole bucket, filling yourself with excess fat, salt and cholesterol. A good tip is to stick to the small popcorn, no matter how cheap or good value the upgrade may be… Your health is always worth more.

The bottom line is that yes, popcorn can be a healthy snack if its air popped and free from flavourings. However, once you chose a gourmet, flavoured popcorn, cooked in oil, chances are you might as well eat a packed of chips….

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