How to Make Healthy Popcorn: Back to Basics

Knowing how to make healthy popcorn can be a challenge. Follow these simple steps to create a healthy, funs snack your kids will love.

Sitting down to enjoy a movie is one of the simple pleasures in life, and the real key to the experience, for me, is having a nice warm bowl of popcorn in my lap to munch on.

But as I sit and eat this delicious snack, I can’t help but let my mind wander and start to wonder: is popcorn good for me?

The answer isn’t apparent just on the surface. I mean, sure, it is a natural ingredient with quite simple preparation, and we all know that it’s light texture means a little bit of mass goes a long way as a snack.

But what does popcorn pack in terms of nutrients? Does it have any at all? Is it a safe, healthy treat for me to share with my children?

We’ll get to the bottom of that very question in this article. Let’s check it out!

How to Make Healthy Popcorn
Popcorn can be a healthy snack as long as we focus on how to make popcorn healthy.

  • Popcorn is naturally a very low calorie, low fat, high fiber, and gluten-free snack
  • Use a little olive oil for the stovetop or an air popper
  • Skip the microwavable popcorn
  • Use light salt and have fun with seasonings

Popcorn By the Numbers

First of all, let’s take a look at some hard stats for popcorn. When it comes to calories and nutrients, a 1 cup serving of air-popped, unsalted (more on that later) popcorn contains:Air popped popcorn is a delicious way to make popcorn a healthy snack

  • 30 calories
  • 6g of total carbohydrates
  • 0g of total fat
  • 1.2g of dietary fiber
  • 1 g of protein

We’re off to a good start here. First, note that the overall calorie count and the total fat count are both quite low (for a snack).

We’ve also got some added health benefits in the form of dietary fiber!

To put that in perspective, three cups of popcorn meets about 15% of the daily recommended amount of fiber for your child. Another fun fact is that popcorn is a naturally gluten-free food!

While we’re a long way away from hailing popcorn as a new ‘superfood,’ it’s clear that popcorn puts some good stuff into your body while filling you up.

Consider how many more calories, fats, and salts you’d eat by chowing on, say, a cup of potato chips. Popcorn is a better option to reach for every time.

Method Matters!

But before you get too excited, let’s pick up on that mention of the type of popcorn from earlier. Those numbers specifically looked at air-popped kernels, and unsalted ones at that.

When you’re judging this snack, it’s essential to keep in mind the way you’re preparing it, as that has a significant impact on the final product.

Use heart healthy oils when making your popcorn

For example, if we take that same single cup of popcorn and fry it in oil instead of using the air-popper, that same cup of popcorn leaps up to 42 calories.

The fat in the finished product is ten times greater (over 4 grams).

Depending on the type of oil used and the amount, there could be a lot of unhealthy fat added to a seemingly healthy snack.

For example, coconut oil and palm oils are very high in saturated fats. I would suggest using canola oil as it contains about 94% mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids. These types of fats are known for their benefits to heart health.

The healthy minerals and fiber we had previously liked don’t entirely disappear, but now they’re being delivered in a much less appealing package.

Best Home Popcorn Makers

Cuisinart Pop and Serve

This product is known for being consistent in the quality of popcorn made in the convenience of your microwave without the bag! Many users love that it is incredibly easy to clean with minimal unpopped kernels left in the bowl.

Whirley Pop Popcorn Maker

This lightweight device heats very evenly, thanks to the aluminum design. Using the crank system makes it fun for your little ones to use; however, the only downfall is it’s a bit bulky.

This feature alone can make it difficult to store if you’re tight on space. The Whirley Pop does require oil, so this would not be ideal for fat-free popcorn options.

Cuisinart EasyPop Hot Air Popcorn Maker

Many people love that this popcorn maker creates very large and fluffy popcorn kernels! However, the design is bulky and will likely heat the house a bit.

This option might be best for stringing popcorn in the winter months when you don’t mind warming up the house.

Cooking Popcorn on the Stove

What You Need

  • 1 Large 6-quart saucepan or pot
  • 1-2 Tbsp. canola oil
  • 1/2 cup popcorn kernels (such as Newman’s Own kernels)
  • Your favorite seasonings and one tsp. of salt if preferred

Directions

  1. Place your large pot on the stove and heat the oil on high heat.
  2. Place three kernels in the pan, cover, and wait for the kernels to pop. This is the sign that your oil is ready to pop some popcorn!
  3. Next, pour the popcorn kernels into the pan.
  4. Every 30 seconds, remember to lift the pot off the stove and give it a good shake to prevent the kernels from sticking and burning on the bottom.
  5. When you no longer hear popping, remove the pot from the heat, and add your favorite seasonings!

Healthy Homemade Kettle Corn

For a healthy twist on a kid favorite, use the recipe above as a guide. Add the following ingredients to the oil.

  • Three tablespoons of granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Finally, cook your popcorn as directed!

Salt, Salt Everywhere

Don’t forget, too, that the most common preparations of popcorn involve salting the popped kernels. In other words, adding salt to your snack will up your salt intake.

A reasonably salted cup of popcorn will give you about 10% of the daily recommended maximum amount of salt a healthy person should eat.

Popcorn Done Right

Nice bowl of healthy popcorn is a great treat at the end of the day

The best way to prepare popcorn will be one that strikes a balance between using healthy ingredients and getting a tasty result.

It should be a delicious treat that you and your family will enjoy while fitting in nicely with a healthy diet.

Air-popped popcorn requires ZERO added fat, making it the ideal method of preparation. Cooking popcorn on the stovetop with a little bit of vegetable or olive oil is another option.

This method does have a little added fat; however, there are no added preservatives or ingredients that would typically be added to help along the microwave process.

Fun Flavorings Keep You Coming Back for More

Some fun flavoring options include shredded Parmesan cheese and rosemary for a sugar-free option, cinnamon with a little sugar, or even a drizzle of melted dark chocolate with sea salt.

The possibilities are endless; all you need is a little creativity! For a peanut butter inspired seasoning, try combining PB2 powder (powdered peanut butter that you can find right next to your traditional favorite in the grocery store),  a light sprinkle of stevia, and salt to taste. 

Also, if your little ones are obsessed with ranch dressing, simply sprinkle a packet of Hidden Valley Original Ranch Dressing and Seasoning Mix over the top of your freshly popped corn. 

Skip the Microwaveable Popcorn

There are a variety of different methods other than using the microwave to create healthy popcorn.

The last note about the way to prepare popcorn we should explore is the popularity of microwaveable popcorn.

For steaming vegetables or defrosting dumplings, microwave ovens are a perfectly safe and healthy part of the cooking process. When it comes to popping popcorn, though, this is not the case.

Let’s set aside for a second the simple fact that microwave popcorn bags tend to have extra oil and salt than is necessary to get a tasty snack.

Microwavable Popcorn Ingredients

Beyond that significant issue, we need to note that the companies who produce these bags have a history of being a bit careless about the chemicals used in their production.

One ingredient, diacetyl, was once the ingredient of choice for a variety of flavorings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report this is now out of fashion due to health risks caused for those who manufactured the chemical or products containing it (though not for those who ate it).

In recent years, microwave bags have come under scrutiny for their use of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

You can find bags today that don’t contain this anti-sticking agent, but the general theme here is clear. Microwave popcorn contains more chemicals and ingredients you wouldn’t choose to put there yourself.

The Final Verdict

A long as you stay on top of the preparation and try to avoid microwaveable versions, popcorn can be a healthy and delicious snack for movie time or any time.

Just try some of the suggested flavoring combinations if your little one wants to eat popcorn. Any way you slice it, this snack rocks!