You’ve got the midnight munchies and reach to the cupboard for something to satisfy your craving.
But you stop, realizing you are trying to eat more healthily. So, instead of the chips, you go for the microwave popcorn.
But you stop to wonder: is this microwave delicacy any healthier? Should you instead be air popping it yourself?
Ann Marion Willis can take away that wonder. She’s a registered dietitian who works at the Superstore in Glace Bay, Sydney River, and North Sydney.
What to look for in microwave popcorn
When it comes to microwave popcorn, there are a few things to consider. These include the type and amount of fat, the salt and the flavourings and additives that may be present.
Ideally, said Willis, there should be zero grams of trans fat, as these fats are directly linked to cholesterol and cardiovascular health. But she added we need to take into account that we don’t always eat the amount that’s listed as the serving on the package. In this case, do the math to determine how much you are eating and consider if you are eating this on a regular basis.
It’s also important to check the ingredient list for partially hydrogenated oils, noted Willis. This phrase can indicate that trace amount of trans fats may be present.
Next, consider total fat content of the microwave popcorn. Some brands pop popcorn in oil, then add more oil, butter or other fats. Usually, these are not our heart-healthy unsaturated fats, so you then need to determine how much you can fit into your day alongside other food choices.
Of course, popcorn often is considered a salty or savoury snack, so sodium needs to be considered, reminded Willis. Compare labels, aim for less than 15 per cent sodium per serving where possible, or look at lowering sodium elsewhere in your day for balance.
Finally, look at what is listed for other ingredients, as this can vary from brand to brand. Some will have few ingredients, others will have colours, stabilizers and preservatives added. Try to choose a brand with fewer ingredients and preferably ingredients you would find in your own kitchen, recommended Willis.
Healthier homemade popcorn and seasonings
Generally, popcorn on the stove just needs a bit of oil to help it pop, explained Willis. If you are making it this way, choose an oil like canola that is stable at high heats. Add just enough to pop your kernels.
Consider what you are adding afterward, she said.
Willis keeps it simple in her house, but she loves to experiment. Try herb and spice blends, like grated parmesan and garlic, or cinnamon with a bit of sugar instead of butter to switch it up, she suggested. Or try a little of Just Add Yogurt ranch dip seasoning mix. It’s lower sodium than many popcorn-specific brands, but adds the familiar flavour.
When evaluating bagged brands of popcorn, Willis advised to consider the nutrition facts panel and consider the same points as you would for microwave popcorn. Look at serving sizes, fat content and type of fats, sodium and fibre. Some brands are air popped, which will mean lower saturated and trans fats, which is important to many with heart conditions or diabetes, she noted. Others may be higher or lower in sodium, depending on the flavour.
Compare labels between brands, and you might find some gems that work best for your needs, said Willis.
Remember, you can always sprinkle some of those herbs and spices on pre-popped varieties too. Willis likes to spray with an oil mister filled with olive or canola oil so the spices will stick.
Making popcorn at home
Some readers have written, asking about the best way to make popcorn at home and if it is worth it to buy a popcorn maker. Or is that just more kitchen clutter for something that doesn’t really work?
Willis said popcorn makers that rely on air popping generally make healthier popcorn, as there is no need to add any type of oil, sodium or other ingredients to proceed. Remember, however, home popcorn makers that replicate movie popcorn generally require oil of some kind and it may be common to use a butter-flavoured seasoning as well, according to Willis.
There are also simpler methods, she added.
The timeless stovetop pot option works, as does the more modern take — the silicone microwave popper. These can be cheaper, require less storage space, use less additives depending on what you choose to use and be just as delicious.
“Never walk away from popping corn, no matter what method or appliance you choose though,” she said.
Overall, Willis continued, many of the packaged microwave popcorns on the market have been moving toward simpler ingredients and fewer preservatives these days.
“It’s always important to read your labels, know how much you’re using and how often you’re consuming popcorn,” she said. “Homemade doesn’t always mean healthier than packaged if we’re then adding unaccounted for seasoned oils or flavourings.”