Last week, in a New York Times article appropriately titled “Stephen Curry Has a Popcorn Problem,” the Golden State Warriors sharpshooter shamelessly admitted to being a “popcorn addict.” In fact, the basketballer loves the buttery-salty snack so much that he even ranked the popcorn served at all 29 NBA arenas, grading them on freshness, saltiness, crunchiness, butter and presentation (apparently, the American Airlines Center in Dallas serves the best popcorn — you’re welcome).
Curry does recognize that popcorn can be an unhealthy snack, which is especially true when you drench it in butter and salt. That said, when I recently asked Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, about healthy snacks that can be consumed in large amounts, she immediately mentioned air-popped popcorn (which is basically the purest form of popcorn without any extra ingredients). “Popcorn is a very low-calorie treat when it’s air-popped without a bunch of added butter and oils,” she said. “One cup only has about 40 calories or so — and a lot of fiber. It won’t necessarily feel that satiating, because it’s a lot of air, but you’ll be chewing on it so long that either your mouth or your stomach will feel full before you put in too many calories.”
So as with almost anything (except energy drinks), popcorn may or may not be healthy, depending on what you — or that stoned dude working at the movie theater — put on it. That being the case, I asked Hunnes to help me rank popular popcorn flavors and styles by how healthy they are — from ultimate snack to pop your clogs.
1) Air-Popped Popcorn: You probably expected this to be first, and rightfully so. “This is the healthiest, since it has very few calories,” Hunnes explains (again, one cup contains only about 40 calories). “It also doesn’t have all the saturated fats, trans fats and sodium that comes along with other popcorn on this list [more on that later]. In fact, it’s technically a ‘whole-grain’ in the sense that it’s nothing but corn kernels that have been steamed open.”
Being a whole-grain, air-popped popcorn also provides a solid dose of dietary fiber, which essentially keeps your intestinal system running smoothly — or in simpler terms, it helps you poop. And while air-popped popcorn doesn’t contain saturated fats or trans fats (again, more on those momentarily), it does contain some heart-healthy unsaturated fats.
2) Skinny Pop: “This is the second best, since it’s basically air-popped popcorn, plus a little salt and oil, which adds unsaturated fats,” Hunnes explains (Skinny Pop specifically contains sunflower oil, which also boasts heart-healthy omega-6 fatty acids). “If you can’t make your own, Skinny Pop is probably the next best choice on this list, since it doesn’t have added sugars and is still mostly whole grain.”
3) Kettle Corn: “This would probably be the third best, since it’s mostly just air-popped popcorn, plus a little salt, sugar and oil,” says Hunnes. “Since it contains vegetable oil, that provides some unsaturated fats, and the low levels of salt and sugar are just enough to give it a nice sweetness without being cloying or terrible for your teeth and weight.” As with pretty much all foods, though, homemade versions tend to be healthier than the store-bought ones, since manufacturers almost always add more salt, oil and sugar than we normally would in our own kitchens.
4) Extra-Butter Popcorn: “I didn’t want to put this so high on the list, but at least extra-butter popcorn [when made at home] is likely just made with popcorn and butter,” Hunnes says. “While full of saturated fats, it’s still probably better for you than tons-of-sugar caramel corn and similar flavored popcorn.”
Finally! We can talk about saturated fats, which in this case, come from all that butter. Saturated fats have traditionally been linked to heart disease, but it’s worth noting that science continues to go back and forth in regard to whether or not they’re actually healthy. At the end of the day, though, most experts still agree that limiting your intake of saturated fats can help reduce your risk of heart disease, especially since it’s abundant in the average American diet (common sources include red meat, dairy and many commercially prepared foods).
5) Caramel Corn: “Not that I really wanted to put this high on the list either, since caramel corn is usually highly sugared, but the ingredients are also usually pretty simple: Sugar, oil and popcorn,” Hunnes says. “So other than the high-calorie sugars and the terrible-for-your-teeth stickiness, caramel corn is at least probably better for you than movie theater popcorn [more on that coming soon].”
6) Microwaveable Popcorn: There are obviously many varieties of microwaveable popcorn out there, and while most are pretty similar, we’re going to look primarily at the popular Pop Secret popcorn. “For the most part, microwaveable popcorn contains palm oil, which is terrible for the environment and contains saturated fats that aren’t so great for our hearts,” Hunnes explains (she also notes that some brands may contain trans fats, which are a huge contributor to the American heart disease epidemic, although Pop Secret seems to be trans-fat-free). “They also have a lot of salt, and sadly, the kettle corn version contains sucralose, a low-calorie sweetener that I still think is ‘an experiment’ even though it was deemed safe by the USDA.”
Artificial sweeteners suck for several reasons (more on that here), but studies suggest that sucralose in particular increases the populations of bacteria in our gut that pull energy from our food and turn that energy into fat. Or in simpler terms, sucralose may make us fat.
7) Movie Theater Popcorn and Cheesy Popcorn (tied): “Movie theater popcorn is doused in a ‘butter-flavored seasoning,’ which is mostly food dyes and salt,” Hunnes explains. “This is probably the worst one on the list and likely contains trans fats, saturated fats, much too much salt and potentially carcinogenic food dyes — yuck.”
More specifically, movie theater popcorn contains flavacol, butter-flavored topping and another similar ingredient called buttery flavoring. Flavacol is a seasoning mixture that contains salt, artificial flavor and two yellow food dyes, which help give movie theater popcorn that trademark color. While artificial flavors and colors really aren’t too big of a deal, a single teaspoon of flavacol contains 1,880 milligrams of sodium, which is only 20 milligrams less than the amount in two Big Macs. So yeah, movie theater popcorn is salty as hell.
As for the butter-flavored topping, it contains heart-crushing hydrogenated soybean oil, the potentially tumor-promoting preservative tert-butylhydroquinone (or TBHQ) as well as some pigments and anti-foaming agents. What it doesn’t contain, sadly, is actual butter. Then there’s also that buttery flavoring, which is essentially a mystery ingredient that mimics the taste of butter — again, without any real butter.
While movie theater popcorn might seem hard to beat on the unhealthy scale, Hunnes suggests that cheesy popcorn is right up there with it. “In addition to the fact that it likely doesn’t contain real cheese — it’s more likely a cheese-flavored, dyed powder with a lot of salt in it — this may be one of the worst products for you on this list,” she says. “Though, I suppose it really would depend on the ingredient profile, but I imagine it’s somewhere between movie theater popcorn and Cheetos. Trans fats and food dyes aren’t good for us, period.”
I can’t emphasize enough, though, that this really depends on the brand — for example, this cheesy popcorn they sell at Target has a crazy long ingredients list that boasts many of the same ingredients in movie theater popcorn — however, Skinny Pop also sells a cheesy popcorn that’s relatively harmless. So make sure to check those ingredients lists.
Now please excuse me while I pick all these damn kernels outta my teeth.