Is your 'healthy' popcorn really good for you?

Sue Quinn
Popcorn has been on the healthy snack scene for years now; but how healthy is it? - Getty Images Contributor

Popcorn has been reinvented over the past few years. Once regarded as the classic cinema treat, laden with salt, sugar – or both in the same tub – popcorn manufacturers have re-branded the naturally gluten-free snack to become a nutritious alternative to crisps. And it seems to have worked, with the popcorn market currently worth £102.2m. 

Premium 'healthy' popcorn brand Propercorn insists that despite the 4.4 per cent decrease in popcorn sales across the board in the past year, sales of so-called 'healthy' popcorn retailers are seeing gains in the double-digits year-on-year. Propercorn reported a growth of 40 per cent as they have become "an established part of people's snacking routines". 

Other brands just as Joe & Seph's have chosen a different route, devising unusual flavours from gin & tonic to cheese on toast to tempt us to throw them in the shopping trolley. But have they, in fact, turned a potentially nutritious bite into just another vehicle for sugar, salt and fat?

In its most basic form, popcorn isn’t bad for you, but a lot depends on how manufacturers pop the kernels – using either hot air or oil – and the kinds of flavourings they add. Air-popped and eaten plain, popcorn is a healthy whole grain food that is low in calories (about 30 calories per cup) and high in fibre (about 1g per cup), especially when compared to snacks like crisps. Popcorn contains only small quantities of vitamins and minerals, such as B6, magnesium and iron, although a US study has suggested it might also boast as many healthful antioxidants as some fruit and vegetables.

But oil-popped and flavoured popcorn is a different story. Large buckets of sweet popcorn from the cinema, or packets of gourmet, flavoured popcorn can be high in calories and loaded with sugar and/or salt. Large 280g packs of sweet popcorn available at some cinemas, for example, contain more than 1200 calories and 40g of sugar (the equivalent of 10 teaspoons), while large buckets of salted cinema popcorn can contain as much as 3g of salt – half our recommended daily intake.

Surprisingly, even savoury varieties can be loaded with the sweet stuff: a 25g serve of Joe & Seph’s Cheese on Toast popcorn, for example, contains almost two teaspoons of sugar. And while in theory air-popped popcorn is the healthiest, many manufacturers spray it with oil after popping to make seasonings stick, negating many of the supposed benefits.

Nutritionist Vicky Bruce warns that some varieties of so-called gourmet popcorn are so high in sugar, salt and/or fat that they need to be viewed as treats not health food.

“Popcorn is regularly touted as a wonder snack but it’s no superfood,” she says. “Air-popped with a sprinkling of sugar or herbs in a reasonable serving size of 30g or so is a brilliant alternative to crisps, but serving size is key. A bag of popcorn from the cinema can contain a whopping number of calories – sometimes it’s worse nutritionally than a bag of crisps.”

She advises choosing small boxes of popcorn at the cinema, or air popping it at home (see below) and mixing it with dried fruit and nuts as a snack to balance your blood sugar and stop you reaching for the crisps.

Here’s our guide to the popular brands.

Propercorn

Propercorn lightly seal salted popcorn

Started 11 years ago in a London flat, Propercorn was one of the first brands to come out of the healthy snacking trend, which has now expanded to produce eight flavours and a range of microwavable popcorn and 'properchips' – tortilla chips made from lentils. A 20g serving of their sea salt flavour contains 87 calories, 3.4g of fat, 0.1g of sugar and 0.28g of salt. It tastes fresh, crunchy and satisfyingly salty.

Its sweet flavour is the only I come across that uses raw cane sugar, giving the sweet kernels a pleasantly natural caramel flavour, though a 20g bag is 135 calories.

Health rating: 8/10

Taste rating: 8/10

Joe & Seph's

Joe & Seph's popcorn

At the front of the gourmet popcorn trend is Joe & Seph's, which currently offers a whopping 62 different flavours, with everything from blue cheese, walnut and celery to pale ale – in fact, the one flavour you won't find is plain salted.

All its popcorn is air-popped, though some contain sunflower oil. A 20g serving of the cheese on toast flavour contains 104 calories, with 5.9g of fat, 6.1g of sugar and 0.2g salt. Having said this, they don't claim to be a healthy popcorn brand.

The cheese on toast popcorn splits opinions; some think it oddly resembles the buttery taste of a cheese twist – others think it has an overbearing sickliness and lacks the savoury tang of cheddar cheese. Personally, I'm not a fan.

Health rating: 5/10

Taste rating: 6/10 

Metcalfe's Skinny Popcorn

Metcalfe's sea salt popcorn

One of the brands to maximise on the healthy popcorn craze, Metcalfe's Skinny Popcorn comes in five classic flavours; sea salt, sweet, 'cinema' sweet, salted caramel and salt 'n' sweet. A quarter of a sharing bag, or a single serving bag, of their salted flavour contains 84 calories, 4.1g of fat, almost no sugar and 0.23g of salt. However, as a sharing bag is only 70g, this makes a single serving portion only 17.5g.

As for the taste, though, it's exactly as you would expect; simple, crunchy and light.  Salt 'n' sweet, which is 96 calories a portion, is also rather addictive.

Health rating: 8/10

Taste rating: 8/10

Tyrell's Poshcorn

Tyrell's sea salted poshcorn

Premium crisp brand and member of the KP cohort, Tyrell's Poshcorn calls itself a 'superlative' popcorn, and comes in only three flavours; sea salt, sweet and a mix of the two.

Though Metcalfe's may advertise itself as a healthier option, Tyrell's health credentials are very similar; a quarter of a 70g serving contains 83 calories, 4.3g of fat, 0.1g of sugar and 0.2g of salt.

The product tastes fresher than Metcalfe's, more akin to the popcorn I would make on the hob at home. Though less salty, the corn has a satisfying toasted quality that makes them very moreish.

Its sweet equivalent comes in at 123 calories for a 23g serving, with 7.3g of fat, 5.3g of sugar and almost no salt, so if you're watching your weight you would be wise to stick with salted. 

Health rating: 7/10

Taste rating: 9/10

Planet Organic 'It's Crunch Time'

Planet Organic 'It's Crunch Time' 

Made by the British mini supermarket chain, this grab-and-go packet is crammed with health-food buzzwords – 'hand-popped', 'kale' and 'coconut oil' – but for all the health signalling on the packaging, a 20g serving comes in at 102 calories, with 4.7g of fat, 0.2g of sugar and 0.15g of fat. 

Opening the packet releases an odd whiff of what can only be described as 'green', mirrored in the odd vegetal powder that coats the popcorn. There is a hint of unidentfiable 'cheeze' (its spelling), with an aftertaste more akin to green tea than kale – not that kale really has much of a distinctive taste, anyway. It's a no from me.

Health rating: 6/10

Taste rating: 4/10

Butterkist 

Butterkist Cinema Sweet popcorn

Golden-crusted and tooth-achingly sweet; that's how I remember the popcorn of the days when you picked up a couple of bags in the queue at Blockbusters on the way to a friend's.

Butterkist has made little attempt to jump on the health bandwagon, though the back of the packets does boast that the popcorn is gluten-free, a source of fibre, wholegrain and vegetarian – even if coated in pure sugar.

A 30g serving still only contains 150 calories, with 7.8g of fat, 9.9g of sugar and 0.01g of salt. But I have to admit, the pack beside me is disappearing fast...

Health rating: 3/10

Taste rating: 8/10