Popcorn: Good or Not so Good?

Popcorn Ingredients

Story at-a-glance -

  • Anthropologists have found evidence that popcorn was part of indigenous diets in Mexico and Peru around 5,000 years ago and the Southwest around 2,500 years ago
  • Manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, vitamins B3 and B6 and potassium in popcorn help reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke and atherosclerosis
  • Fiber and polyphenols are two popcorn ingredients that help make it relatively healthy, as they help fight cancer, type 2 diabetes and many other diseases
  • While 90 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered (GE), popcorn is not (yet). Air-popped and with only coconut oil and a little salt, it’s a nourishing snack. It’s the additives that make popcorn potentially toxic

By Dr. Mercola

Many people love eating a bowl of crunchy popcorn. It's been a favorite snack for centuries in America. Anthropologists have actually found popcorn remnants in the American Southwest dating from about 2,500 years ago and in Peru and Mexico as old as 5,000 years.

Sold as "Pearl" corn or "Nonpareil" in the early 1800s, a popcorn "boom" increased its popularity quickly during the Great Depression because it was so inexpensive. It must have caught on, because Americans now eat around 1.2 billion pounds every year!1

If you choose the right variety and cook it properly, popcorn can be relatively nutritious and provides a valuable source of fiber. The ingredients in this healthy snack may even translate to benefits that fight disease.

Popcorn and Your Health

While this article will review some of the beneficial aspects of popcorn it is still relatively high in net carbs and if you are seeking to optimize your mitochondrial health anything more than an ounce or two of popcorn is not a wise choice.

Remember the way to prevent most all chronic degenerative diseases will be to teach your body to burn fat for fuel. It would be FAR better to eat high fiber vegetables for carbs than grains.

Nutritional Aspects of Popcorn

A fairly modest portion of popcorn — 3.5 ounces — offers several important nutrients and impressively high percentages to consumers in terms of recommended daily intake (RDI).

Manganese, for instance, presents 56 percent of the RDI, while magnesium and phosphorus each bring 36 percent.

Zinc is also significant with 21 percent, and copper, vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) and potassium showing up with just under 10 percent each.2 Popcorn contains nutrients and compounds that are associated with:

  • Regulated blood sugar
  • Improved digestion
  • Weight loss
  • Reduced cholesterol levels
  • Cancer prevention

Another interesting thing about popcorn is that while a 1-cup serving contains 6.2 grams of carbohydrates, which becomes glucose in your body after digestion, the starch is different.

Popcorn retains the endosperm, germ and bran for fiber that sloughs your blood vessel and artery walls of excess cholesterol, helping to optimize cholesterol levels.4 Simultaneously, your risk of heart attack, stroke and atherosclerosis — aka hardening of the arteries — is lowered. 

For these reasons, your heart doesn't have to work so hard; your blood vessels and arteries allow blood to flow through at the optimum rate rather than slowing down, thickening and causing problems like those mentioned above.

Popcorn Contains Valuable Fiber

That same 3.5-ounce serving of popcorn contains 389 calories and 15 grams of fiber.5 With it you get 78 grams of carbohydrates, 13 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat. Altogether, popcorn is a very substantial food, with physical benefits for every one of those vitamins and minerals.

Fiber is so important that if people ate the amount they should — I recommend consuming about 25 to 50 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories consumed per day — ailments like type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease would likely be much less prevalent.

However, most people eat far less than those amounts. According to Authority Nutrition:6

"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."7

Popcorn also provides antioxidants, which in turn stave off undesirable features of premature aging such as muscle weakness, osteoporosis, macular degeneration, cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Even things like wrinkles and age spots may be diminished by this one popcorn component.8

Certainly not least, fiber is important because it encourages regularity by stimulating your intestinal muscles and digestive juices, which keeps everything moving through on a regular basis.

The less time food remains in your colon, the better. When it sticks around in your digestive tract for too long, constipation and other problems can occur.

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Popcorn and Weight Loss

Because of the fiber, relatively low calories and other factors already discussed, popcorn can help with weight loss.

In fact, one study comparing how full people felt after eating either popcorn or potato chips found that popcorn did a better job of satisfying consumers, which could ultimately lead to fewer consumed calories.9 However, the caloric intake from eating movie theater popcorn can be staggering:

"A small bag of popcorn from Harkins Theaters contains 250 calories, 16 grams of fat and 27 grams of carbohydrates. Increase that to a large bag of popcorn, and you'll eat 780 calories, 50 grams of fat and 83 grams of carbs.

Splurge on the extra-large and your treat clocks in at 1,120 calories, 72 grams of fat and 120 grams of carbs, which is more than one-third the number of carbs you should have for the entire day."10

Polyphenols in Popcorn — An Antioxidant Explosion

You've heard of free radicals, which your body produces to help your metabolic processes function better, but when too many are produced, they can turn on you. They can kill off enzymes, multiply and wreak enough havoc in your cells to cause diseases and even alter your DNA.11

That's where antioxidants come in, waging war on free radicals provided by antioxidants in the nutrients you consume. Polyphenols in popcorn could be called super antioxidants.

They're important because they can improve your digestion and circulation, and as a result, reduce your cancer risk as well, particularly breast and prostate cancers.12

One interesting study conducted by Joe Vinson, Ph.D., from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, found that popcorn contains more polyphenols than fruits and vegetables. Polyphenols are more highly concentrated in popcorn than nuts and chocolate, two rivaling snack options.

In fact, his study determined that polyphenol concentrations are much higher in popcorn than previously thought, with more than 15 times the amounts found in whole-grain tortilla chips.

"Polyphenols are more concentrated in popcorn, which averages only about 4 percent water, while polyphenols are diluted in the 90 percent water that makes up many fruits and vegetables."13

Additional research shows that eating popcorn can help regulate blood sugar, lower cholesterol, improve digestion, prevent osteoporosis and protect against cancer.14

Good News About Popcorn: Experts Say It's GMO-Free — For Now

You may be wondering about whether popcorn is genetically engineered (GE). The answer may surprise you, because to date, it isn't (which is not to say it won't be at some point).

Especially because 90 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is GE, there's quite a bit of internet chat regarding organic or otherwise safe, non-toxic popcorn being labeled "non-GMO" (genetically modified organism) if it's all non-GMO — and several health-minded growers say it is — then the advertising may seem a bit disingenuous.

However, because GMO labeling is not required for all food manufacturers, many wise consumers keep their eyes peeled for "non-GMO" labels as a precaution. The unfortunate fact is, even if every company's popcorn is non-GMO, the label should still say so. According to author and naturopath Elizabeth Yarnell:

"At the Seeds of Doubt conference … Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology and GMO expert, assured us that even though almost 90 percent of the corn grown and eaten in this country is GMO corn, popcorn comes from a different seed and has not been genetically modified."15

It's wise to be cautious, however, as lifestyle blogger "Growing Up Herbal" observed:

"Now just because popcorn is not GMO doesn't mean that you should just go out and buy any cheap brand at the grocery store. No, no, no. You see, popcorn is a crop that is heavily covered in pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers, and that means that it's best eaten as organic."16

How Popcorn Is Prepared Makes All the Difference

Air-popped popcorn contains far fewer calories than most other foods. However, the preparation of even the highest-quality organic popcorn can take it from nutritious to just another potentially health-wrecking snack option. Case in point: microwave popcorn.

There are a lot of ways to prepare it, but in some peoples' minds, the easiest way comes in a microwaveable bag, which presents innumerable hazards.17 This version usually contains not just popcorn but the chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), linked to ADHD and hyperactivity in children,18 low birth weight19 and thyroid disease.20

Another dangerous chemical in the pseudo-butter in popcorn is diacetyl, which multiple animal studies show may damage airways and even precipitate lung disease.21

The public is becoming more aware of another common hazard in popcorn (and other foods): Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil, aka interesterified oil, trans fat or other monikers. Read your labels and you'll find it in many foods on grocery shelves, even though a plethora of studies reveal a clear link to heart disease and other problems.22

Healthy Popcorn Recipe

It must be said that popcorn toppings present another risk factor when it comes to popcorn preparation. One of the best sellers is caramel corn, but get this: a 3.5-ounce serving (100 grams) imparts a whopping 65 grams of sugar.23 If simple and nutritious are as important to you as delicious, here's a great recipe:


  • 3 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 1/2 cup popcorn kernels
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt


  1. Place oil and kernels into a large pot and cover. Cook over medium-high heat for about three minutes or until the popping slows and you can count to 10 before another kernel pops.
  2. Remove from heat and pour into a serving bowl. Season with salt and serve.

Additional flavors can be added, such as black pepper, or to make it a little spicier, shake in a little paprika. Natural nut butters or cinnamon are delicious options. Nutritional yeast is a good option for a slight nutty flavor and pleasing texture, with extra protein, B vitamins, minerals and fiber.

The bottom line is, when you're hungry for a snack, choosing to nosh on something delicious doesn't mean it can't be healthy as well. Popcorn done right fits the bill in many ways. Just choose organic popcorn, air-pop it and avoid eating a bucketful.