5 Surprising Benefits of Popcorn

by John Staughton (BASc, BFA) last updated -

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Popcorn may only seem like a delicious snack for movie theaters and comfy nights at home, but there are many health benefits associated with this air-popped food that most people have never heard of. The health benefits of popcorn include its ability to regulate blood sugar, lower cholesterol levels, improve the digestive process, protect against osteoporosis, inhibit cognitive decline, delay aging, and help you lose weight.

What is Popcorn?

Popcorn is quite simply, a type of corn that has a hard endosperm, hull, or shell, containing a starchy interior. When this corn is heated, the pressure inside the hull increases and eventually a POP! occurs. 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.

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 that plant product 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.

Popcorn is enjoyed around the world, in nearly every place where normal corn is consumed. However, its limit as a healthy food ends when you begin pouring salt, butter, or other flavorings or topping, and then it moves into the realm of unhealthy junk food. However, if popped corn is eaten plain, it is both a delicious and beneficial snack for many people. 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”, which removes a lot of the 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 [kcal]387
Protein [g]12.94
Total lipid (fat) [g]4.54
Carbohydrate, by difference [g]77.78
Fiber, total dietary [g]14.5
Sugars, total [g]0.87
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
Vitamin C, total ascorbic acid [mg]0
Thiamin [mg]0.1
Riboflavin [mg]0.08
Niacin [mg]2.31
Vitamin B-6 [mg]0.16
Folate, DFE [µg]31
Vitamin B-12 [µg]0
Vitamin A, RAE [µg]10
Vitamin A, IU [IU]196
Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) [mg]0.29
Vitamin D (D2 + D3) [µg]0
Vitamin D [IU]0
Vitamin K (phylloquinone) [µg]1.2
Fatty acids, total saturated [g]0.64
Fatty acids, total monounsaturated [g]0.95
Fatty acids, total polyunsaturated [g]2.32
Cholesterol [mg]0
Caffeine [mg]0
Sources include : USDA

Popcorn Nutrition Facts

The health benefits of popcorn are mainly derived from the impressive content of fiber, polyphenolic compounds, antioxidant, vitamin B complex, manganese, and magnesium content.

Health Benefits of Popcorn

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

Improves 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 that also contain all three of these vital parts. Since it is a natural whole grain, it contains all of the fiber from the bran, not to mention the minerals, B complex vitamins, and vitamin E that is stored there. The high fiber content in popcorns helps in smooth bowel movements and also prevents constipation. Fiber stimulates 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.

Lowers Cholesterol Levels

Fiber functions in another beneficial way within the body, and whole grains contain the type of fiber which can strip off excess cholesterol from the walls of blood vessels and arteries, thereby reducing your overall cholesterol levels, and lowering your chances of dangerous cardiovascular conditions like atherosclerosis, heart attacks, and strokes. This also reduces the strain on the cardiac system, since the heart doesn’t need to work so hard to move blood through clogged vessels and arteries.

Regulates Blood Sugar

The third vital role of fiber is its impact on blood sugar within the body. When the body has ample amounts of fiber, it regulates the release and management of blood sugar and insulin levels better than people with low levels of fiber. Reducing these fluctuations in blood sugar is a major bonus for diabetics, so popcorn is always a recommendation if you suffer from that difficult disease.

Rich in Polyphenols

Joe Vinson, Ph.D., from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, discovered that the hull of popcorn contains large amounts of polyphenolic compounds and fiber. He presented his research at the 243rd National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) 2012. According to him, popcorn has concentrated levels of healthy antioxidants since it has only 4 percent water whereas fruits and vegetables have 90 percent water, causing polyphenols to be diluted. Also, it is one of the only snacks, which is an unprocessed whole grain. However, Dr. Vinson cautions that people can get the benefits of popcorn only when it is air-popped. Microwave versions or popcorn slathered with oil or butter may not be as beneficial.

Prevents Aging

Free radicals do a lot more damage than cancer; they have been closely linked to of age-related symptoms like wrinkles, age spots, macular degeneration and blindness, muscle weakness, cognitive decline, osteoporosis, hair loss, and a wide variety of other things we generally don’t look forward to as we age. Popcorn can keep you feeling healthy and happy well into your old age thanks to the powerful antioxidants that combat these effects of free radicals.

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Weight Loss

A normal cup of popped popcorn contains only 30 calories, which is approximately 5 times less than the same amount of greasy potato chips. Furthermore, the fiber content makes you feel full and inhibits the release of the hunger hormone, ghrelin. This can prevent overeating and keep people who are battling the bulge happy and thin, without making them feel like they aren’t eating enough. It is also very low in saturated fats, and its natural oils are primarily healthy and essential in the body.

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 negate much of the positive impact that it can have on the body. Also, avoid pre-packaged microwave popcorn, as it usually has butter and salt. Once it begins to pop, 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.

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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