The term "guilt-free snack" sounds too good to be true. Snack food is typically equated with junk food—stuff like potato chips, cookies and Twinkies. Consuming such foods is a shameful, spur-of-the-moment experience. They taste amazing while you're eating them, but you regret it as soon as you gulp the final bite.
But some snacks manage to taste good while also supporting a healthy lifestyle. One you probably wouldn't think of? Popcorn. When you think of popcorn, you probably conjure up a movie theatre snack covered in a mountain of salt and drowning in fake butter. Let's make one thing clear—that type of popcorn is certainly not healthy. But bare or lightly-seasoned popcorn is both amazingly healthy and super satisfying. Here's the low-down on this forgotten healthy snack.
Whether it's air-popped, microwaved or oil-popped, popcorn has some impressive nutrition. However, air-popped popcorn is slightly more desirable in a couple of categories. We'll get into preparation later. The following nutritional figures are for air-popped popcorn. A single 1-ounce serving contains 110 calories, 1 gram of fat, almost no saturated fat, 4 grams of dietary fiber, 4 grams of protein and 10 percent of your daily magnesium.
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What jumps out right away are the low calorie and fat totals. At 110 calories a serving, popcorn qualifies as a snack you can mindlessly munch on in front of the television without having to worry about major repercussions. The remarkably low fat totals are equally impressive.
It isn't just popcorn's relative lack of bad stuff that makes it a smart choice. Popcorn is loaded with several useful nutrients that your body uses to optimize various functions.
Perhaps the biggest plus for popcorn is its high fiber content. A single serving delivers 16 percent of your daily value. Fiber is super important for a variety of bodily functions, and the truth is, most people don't get enough of it. According to the National Institutes of Health, teens and adults should eat between 20 and 38 grams of fiber each day, and men need more fiber than women. But the average American eats only 10 to 15 grams of fiber daily.
Fiber is like the Swiss Army knife of nutrients. According to the Mayo Clinic, it can help normalize bowel movements, lower cholesterol levels, control blood sugar, maintain bowel health and aid in achieving a healthy weight. The Harvard School of Public Health states that fiber appears to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
But the most interesting effect of fiber might be how it slows down digestion. This helps you feel full longer after you eat—which is exactly what you want from a snack. Popcorn is also surprisingly high in protein, packing nearly 4 grams per serving. Protein helps build and repair muscle but also helps you stay full.
In addition, a serving of popcorn contains 10 percent of your daily value of magnesium. Magnesium is an important mineral that is used by every organ in the body. It activates enzymes and plays a role in energy production. Many Americans fall short of their recommended amount of dietary magnesium, and inadequate amounts have been linked to depression and hearth failure.
The Power of Polyphenols
Popcorn is pretty much the only true 100-percent whole grain snack food. There are a ton of great benefits to eating whole grains, and their high amount of natural antioxidants is one of their best qualities.
Popcorn is high in an antioxidant known as polyphenols. Joe Vinson, a chemistry professor at the University of Scranton, recently shed light on how packed with polyphenols popcorn truly is. A one-ounce serving contains between 242 and 363 mg of polyphenols. Compare this to apples, which typically contain only 160 mg per ounce. Almost all of the antioxidants in popcorn come from the hulls of the kernel—the part you frequently get stuck in your teeth.
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A growing amount of research shows that polyphenols play a role in several aspects of health. A 2009 study entitled "Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease" concluded that "polyphenols or polyphenol-rich diets provide significant protection against the development and progression of many chronic pathological conditions, including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular problems and aging." Many of the health benefits of green tea have been linked to its high polyphenol content.
The High GI is Not a Deal-Breaker
One potential criticism of popcorn's nutrition is its glycemic index. The American Diabetes Association defines the GI as a number-based measurement of "how a carbohydrate-containing food raises blood glucose." Popcorn has a GI of 72, which makes it a "high-GI food."
Although the GI is a fairly new measure, many diet programs advise consuming low-GI foods—largely because they are often lower in calories. Many experts believe that the GI can be somewhat helpful; however, the ADA points out that studies show "the total amount of carbohydrate in food, in general, is a stronger predictor of blood glucose response than the GI." So, what does all this mean? Basically, popcorn's high GI is not a deal breaker.
"I think the GI of a food is highly overrated. It's simply one component of a food, and it certainly doesn't represent the value of that food as a whole," says Brian St. Pierre, nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition. St. Pierre also points out that the process upon which GI is based is a little unrealistic. A food's GI value is determined by feeding a group of healthy people a portion of the food containing 50 grams of digestible carbohydrate, and then measuring their blood glucose levels over the next couple hours. For a serving of popcorn to contain 50 grams of digestible carbohydrate, it would have to be massive—much more than the average person would realistically consume as a snack.
St. Pierre says, "Here's the thing with GI—it requires 50 grams of usable carbohydrate to be measured. That would require 8 or 9 cups of popcorn! That is irrelevant to normal consumption amounts." If the glycemic index of a food is really important to you, you're better off going by the glycemic load (GL), even though that too is just a partial measure of a food's overall health. GL is based on more reasonable serving sizes. Popcorn has a GL of 7, which is comparable to an apple or orange.
As alluded to earlier, the preparation of popcorn can have a major impact on its nutrition.
Microwave popcorn isn't terrible, but many varieties are loaded with butter and salt. You're better off buying kernels and popping them yourself. Popping popcorn on the stove top is a popular approach, but the best way to do it is a method known as "air-popping." Air poppers are quite affordable, and they do a better job of evenly popping the kernels. If you can't afford an air popper, you can use a simple workaround that involves a paper bag and a microwave.
When popcorn is popped in oil or fat, it can cause a big jump in the calorie count. If you like to cook your popcorn in oil, go for a healthy oil like olive or coconut and use a small amount.
When it comes to toppings, try to stick with light seasonings. Things like cinnamon, chili pepper, pepper, crushed red pepper and paprika are healthy seasonings, which can add a flavorful twist without loading up on calories and fat. On the other hand, toppings like cheese, caramel, chocolate, butter and salt are bad news unless used in extreme moderation.
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