4 Surprising Benefits of Popcorn

by John Staughton (BASc, BFA) last updated - Medically reviewed by Emily Hamm (MS, RDN, LD)

Popcorn, typically, a traditional snack for movie theaters and comfy nights at home, has many health benefits associated that many people are unaware of. Several health benefits of popcorn may include its ability to regulate blood sugar, improve digestion, protect against chronic diseases, delay aging, and aid in weight reduction.

What is Popcorn?

Popcorn is considered a whole grain food, which is composed of a hard endosperm, hull, or shell, containing a starchy interior. When it is heated, the pressure inside the hull increases and eventually a POP occurs, creating popcorn! There are a number of varieties of popcorn, including types that are meant to be cooked in a microwave, as well as other unaltered kernels that can be made in small appliances specifically made for popping corn, such as an air-popper. [1]

Historically, there is evidence that popcorn has been enjoyed by cultures for more than 6,000 years since corn (maize) has been an important part of many cultural diets in ancient times. Simple heating of dried corn over a fire would have created the very first popcorn, what a pleasant surprise! The earlier archaeological discoveries of popcorn were in Peru, but New Mexico and Central America also showed remnants of popcorn creation approximately 5,000 years ago. It can even come in different colors if different color corn kernels are used. [2]

Popcorn is enjoyed around the world, in nearly every country where corn is consumed. When eaten plain or seasoned with herbs/seasonings it is both delicious and beneficial. However, it can become unhealthy when you begin pouring salt, butter, or other high fat/high sodium flavorings and toppings. According to a report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, popcorn made in movie theaters can have up to 60 grams of saturated fat due to the fact they cook most of their popcorn in coconut oil. Plain popcorn contains no saturated fat at all. Furthermore, heat alone is enough to create popcorn, so avoid cooking with olive oil or other vegetable oils, since it can impact the polyphenolic content of the hull once it “pops”, decreasing its health benefits.

A bag of popcorn overflowing

Popcorn is a popular snack amongst people of all age groups. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Nutrition Facts

Snacks, popcorn, air-popped
Serving Size :
Water [g]3.32
Energy 387
Energy [kJ]1618
Protein [g]12.94
Total lipid (fat) [g]4.54
Ash [g]1.42
Carbohydrate, by difference [g]77.78
Fiber, total dietary [g]14.5
Sugars, total including NLEA [g]0.87
Sucrose [g]0.72
Glucose (dextrose) [g]0.07
Fructose [g]0.07
Starch [g]54.4
Calcium, Ca [mg]7
Iron, Fe [mg]3.19
Magnesium, Mg [mg]144
Phosphorus, P [mg]358
Potassium, K [mg]329
Sodium, Na [mg]8
Zinc, Zn [mg]3.08
Copper, Cu [mg]0.26
Manganese, Mn [mg]1.11
Thiamin [mg]0.1
Riboflavin [mg]0.08
Niacin [mg]2.31
Pantothenic acid [mg]0.51
Vitamin B-6 [mg]0.16
Folate, total [µg]31
Folate, food [µg]31
Folate, DFE [µg]31
Choline, total [mg]21.2
Betaine [mg]0.8
Vitamin A, RAE [µg]10
Carotene, beta [µg]89
Carotene, alpha [µg]58
Vitamin A, IU [IU]196
Lutein + zeaxanthin [µg]1450
Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) [mg]0.29
Vitamin K (phylloquinone) [µg]1.2
Fatty acids, total saturated [g]0.64
16:0 [g]0.54
18:0 [g]0.08
20:0 [g]0.02
22:0 [g]0.01
Fatty acids, total monounsaturated [g]0.95
16:1 [g]0.01
18:1 [g]0.93
20:1 [g]0.01
Fatty acids, total polyunsaturated [g]2.32
18:2 [g]2.26
18:3 [g]0.05
Tryptophan [g]0.09
Threonine [g]0.45
Isoleucine [g]0.43
Leucine [g]1.47
Lysine [g]0.34
Methionine [g]0.25
Cystine [g]0.22
Phenylalanine [g]0.59
Tyrosine [g]0.49
Valine [g]0.61
Arginine [g]0.6
Histidine [g]0.37
Alanine [g]0.9
Aspartic acid [g]0.84
Glutamic acid [g]2.26
Glycine [g]0.49
Proline [g]1.05
Serine [g]0.57
Sources include : USDA [3]

Popcorn Nutrition Facts

The health benefits of popcorn are mainly derived from its impressive fiber, polyphenolic compounds, antioxidants, B vitamins, manganese, and magnesium content. (USDA Nutrient Database) [4] [5] [6]

Health Benefits of Popcorn

Eating popcorn provides energy along with many benefits that include the following:

May Improve Digestion

It is important to realize that popcorn is a whole grain, which is a designation for grains that contain the endosperm, germ, and bran. This is similar to whole grain cereals, rice, and bread which also contain all three of these vital parts. Since popcorn is a whole grain, it contains all of the fiber from the bran, not to mention the minerals, B complex vitamins, and vitamin E that are stored there.

Notably, the high fiber content in popcorn, as validated by a study conducted at the University of Miami, contributes to regular bowel movements, promoting smoother digestive function and alleviating abdominal discomfort. Fiber stimulates the peristaltic motion of the smooth intestinal muscles and induces the secretion of digestive juices, both of which help to keep your entire digestive system healthy and prevent constipation [7] [8] [9]

Possible Antioxidant Capacity-Fights Chronic Disease and Might Prevent Aging

Polyphenols act as a potential antioxidant in the body, which helps to reduce oxidative stress, fight against the development of chronic diseases, and reduce signs of aging. Researchers have discovered that popcorn has potentially high concentrations of polyphenolic compounds and fiber contained in the pericarp of the kernel. [10] [11]

Also, popcorn consists of only 4 percent water whereas fruits and vegetables have 90 percent water, causing polyphenols to be diluted. However, it is important to consider the preparation method when determining polyphenolic bioavailability. Some of the chemicals in the packaging material actually break down or destroy the phenolic compounds of the hull, severely decreasing its impact on protecting your body against free radicals or oxidative stress. Air-popped popcorn may yield a higher bioavailability of antioxidants compared to microwave cooking. Buttery and oily toppings may also diminish the beneficial effects of antioxidants in popcorn. Eating antioxidant-rich foods like popcorn may not only help you reduce the development of a chronic disease but also prevent the development of age-related symptoms such as wrinkles and age spots. [12]

May Regulate Blood Sugar

Popcorn is a smart snack choice due to its high fiber content, which helps regulate blood sugar and insulin levels, reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The gradual and lower rise in blood sugar associated with high-fiber foods like popcorn can be attributed to their lower digestible carbohydrate content, as found in a 2015 study in the journal Circulation. [13]

Additionally, it has a low glycemic index (GI), which can assist in maintaining stable blood sugar levels, particularly beneficial for individuals with type 2 diabetes, as it can improve glucose and lipid levels. To maximize the health benefits of popcorn, it’s important to control portion sizes and avoid varieties with added sugars.
[14] [15] [16]

Tips to Further Reduce the Glycemic Index of Popcorn

To enjoy popcorn without any blood sugar concerns, consider these tips:

  1. Kernel Choice: Opt for yellow popcorn kernels, which have a lower GI compared to white kernels.
  2. Air Popping: Air-popped popcorn has a lower GI compared to oil or butter-popped varieties. This method eliminates the need for added fats.
  3. Thoughtful Toppings: Be cautious with toppings. Sugary options like caramel or candy can raise the GI. Instead, explore healthier choices like Parmesan cheese, herbs, or spices.
  4. Slow Consumption: Eating slowly allows your body more time to digest popcorn, leading to a slower carbohydrate absorption rate.
  5. Enhancing with Protein: Adding a protein source, such as nuts or seeds, to your popcorn can further slow down carbohydrate digestion and reduce the GI.
  6. Incorporate Healthy Fats: Using healthy fats like avocado or olive oil can aid in slowing digestion and lowering the GI.
  7. Pair with Fiber: Enjoy popcorn alongside fiber-rich foods like vegetables or fruit to further reduce the GI.

By implementing these tips, you can savor popcorn as a wholesome snack without concerns about its impact on blood sugar levels and enjoyt its health benefits.

May Aid in Weight Loss

Popcorn is a low-calorie snack known for its weight management benefits. With just 31 calories per cup of air-popped popcorn, it’s a satisfying alternative to calorie-dense snacks. A study even found that a small amount of popcorn is as filling as a much larger portion of potato chips, making it an excellent choice for controlling calorie intake and supporting weight loss. In addition, the fiber content helps to reduce hunger by slowing the rate of digestion and prolonging satiety. [17] [18]

Word of Caution: Popcorn certainly seems like a healthy snack, but the vast majority of people use large amounts of salt, butter, or other toppings that minimize the beneficial effects it can have on the body. Avoiding pre-packaged popcorn and microwavable popcorn can limit your chance of consuming large amounts of saturated fat and sodium. Popping your own kernels in a pot over heat or in an air-popper is a healthier alternative. You can even add different seasonings such as cinnamon or Italian herbs to get different flavors. Now all you have to do is pop in a good movie and enjoy yourself!

Other than these few words of warning, pop in a good movie, fix yourself a big bowl of popcorn, and get healthy!

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About the Author

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer with English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (USA). He co-founded the literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and now serves as the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, a non-profit based in Denver, Colorado. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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