Popcorn is the latest high street food to take on the so-called ‘health halo’.
The darling of wellbeing junkies and an Instagram sensation (4.8 million tags and counting), popcorn has transformed before our very eyes over the last few years. From a buttery-laden stinky ‘finger food’ from the cinema, it is now donned in salted caramel, doused salt and vinegar and packaged up in artisan boxes. If the humble kernel was a person it would be Laney Boggs from She’s All That.
But what has popcorn had to undergo to let go of its calorific past life? And is the flavour still ‘all that’? Let’s get poppin’.
It’s just kernels and air
To find the healthiest popcorn, just look at the ingredients list on the back. Theoretically speaking, it should just be a kernel and hot air (which makes it ‘pop’). This alone is healthy. Why? Well, popcorn kernels are full of fibre, full of wholegrains, low in calories (a 30g portion provides only 120 calories) and is high in polyphenol antioxidants (a micronutrient that aids digestion, amongst other things). It’s also gluten-free, if that’s your thing.
This is what it is air-popped. The calories are added on when it is popped in a fat, like butter or oil. The benefit of this, of course, is that the popcorn ends up offering a smooth mouthfeel and, perhaps most importantly, it provides a vehicle for any flavourings that get added to the popped corn later.
Almost any powdered or syrup flavouring can be added to popcorn (whether this agrees with our tastebuds is, naturally, a different matter altogether). Salt and sugar are the standard toppings of choice, although more ‘exotic’ flavours, like cinnamon, caramel and even cheese powder transform the humble popcorn kernel into a decadent, flavoursome treat.
It is these flavours, however, which can mean the difference between a low-calorie snack to a fat-laden sugar-topped smorgasbord of crap. Remember how we said a 30g portion of air-popped popcorn was just 120 calories? Well, when that’s heavily coated in butter and salt (like the type you get in microwaveable bags or at the cinema), you’ll be taking in more than 10 per cent of your recommended salt intake and more than three times the fat. Oh, and a large bucket of cinema popcorn comes in at a stealthy 1,400 calories and more than 5g salt.
Finding your favourite
Generally speaking, the plainer the popcorn, the better (the type you make at home using raw kernels will be the best for the waistline). However, if you don’t want to make your own, there are some workarounds which can give you a healthy and tasty snack to grab on the go.
For a healthy savoury popcorn, for instance, Popcorn Shed‘s Say Cheese! popcorn is less than 200 calories per 30g and contains just oil, cheese powder and salt as extra flavourings (this is my absolute favourite product from their range, closely followed by Sweet Cheezus).
And it’s not just about calories – it’s about portion size, too. The reason popcorn has had such a bad rep over the years is because people were consuming 500g worth of it in a single serving while listlessly motioning their hand over its contents like a ruthless Ouija board. This is way too much of one thing which is just popped air and (in the cinema) trans fats.
Instead, keep an eye on your popcorn portions, aiming for around 25-30g per serving. If you really want to be mindful with your intake, Popcorn Shed even offers handy 16g snack packs to sate your appetite. They’re the ideal indulgence when tackling that post-lunch slump.
Got any questions about how to find the healthiest popcorn? You know where the comments live…