Welcome to Should I Eat This?—our weekly poll of five experts who answer nutrition questions that gnaw at you.
Popcorn, the afternoon snack that makes the whole office jealous, is often topped with fatty butter. But is the microwave snack healthy? 4/5 experts say yes.
“Whole grain corn, per se, is a high-fiber, low-calorie, fairly nutritious snack—and that’s what you get with air-popped popcorn,” says Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. Two cups of plain popcorn have 2.3 grams of fiber and just 62 calories.
“Without the added butter and high-fat seasoning, the food is quite a healthy snack,” agrees Gregory J. Privitera, associate professor of psychology at St. Bonaventure University in New York, who has studied how environmental cues can prime us to eat more or less. (Here’s a handy diet tip: Keep the buttered stuff out of reach. People are better able to resist the lure of buttered popcorn when it’s placed six feet away than when it’s within arm’s reach, his research found.)
It has other things going for it, too. One study showed that popcorn is more satiating than potato chips, possibly because its irregular shape and high volume incorporate more air into it. “I would give a thumbs up to popcorn, especially to replace other salty snacks that are highly refined and high in calorie density while low in nutrient density,” says Kathleen Melanson, one of the study’s authors and associate professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Rhode Island.
While the air-popped variety is universally liked among health experts, they’re more split on microwave popcorn.
When bags of microwave popcorn are heated, they emit fine and ultrafine particles that may come with health risks, says Yifang Zhu, associate professor of the environmental health sciences department in UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. Being exposed to high levels of the chemicals in microwave popcorn has been associated with lung disease in people who work in popcorn manufacturing, though a definitive link hasn’t been established.
“Our research shows when people microwave popcorn, there are significant amount of ultrafine particles produced,” she says. In a study last year, after three minutes of cooking microwave popcorn bags, ultrafine particle emissions were up to 560 times higher than the emissions from microwaving just water. The emission rates were highest for movie-theater-butter-flavored popcorn, and lowest for the fat-free kind. “One certainly doesn’t want to breathe the emissions from microwaved popcorn,” Zhu says. However, other studies have shown that people are exposed to ultrafine particles as indoor air pollutants from many everyday sources, like toasters, electric mixers, hair dryers and candles. The United States Environmental Protection Agency is investigating ultrafine particles and giving grants to centers to figure out whether they cause health problems.
The best way to feel good about your popcorn habit is to pop the kernels yourself, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian and manager of Wellness Nutrition Services at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute. Popcorn prepped on the stove with olive oil, or air-popped, is so much tastier—and healthier—than popcorn from a package.