The Best and Worst of Popcorn

Registered Dietitian Melanie Douglass has the scoop on what to watch out for when it comes to popcorn:


1) Look at “unpopped” nutrition information. The nutrition facts labels for popcorn give you the information in two ways: 2 – 3 “tbsp unpopped” or “1 cup popped”.

This method is super confusing because the calories for “1 cup popped” are much lower than the “unpopped”. Keep it simple and just look at the nutrition information for the “tbsp unpopped”. Here’s why:

– Nobody eats just one cup of popcorn. The usual serving size consumed is 5 – 6 cups at a time. Which just so happens to be about 2 – 3 tbsp unpopped.

– By listing the nutrition information per cup, the fat content ends up being less than .5 gram per serving—meaning manufacturers can list “0” grams fat on the label. When you times 0 by 6 cups you still get 0 grams fat! And that is very misleading. In reality, the popcorn may have .4 grams of fat per tiny one-cup serving. If you multiply .4 by 6 cups, you end up with 2.4 grams of fat—not zero.

– We all underestimate the number of calories we eat, so even though the calories for unpopped corn maybe look a little higher, it never hurts to estimate your caloric intake a little higher.

2) Go for the snack-sized or 100-calorie bags. This is automatic portion control—and it’s just what most of us need. It’s all too easy to tell yourself you’ll only eat one serving… then before you know it you’ve eating 2 or 3 servings.

3) Don’t underestimate the power of “a little butter”. A sensible 6-cup portion (like a kid size) of movie popcorn with added butter can pack about 600 calories, 45 grams of fat, and 27 grams of bad-for-your-heart saturated fat. That’s as much saturated fat as TWO quarter pound cheeseburgers—in just 6 cups! Microwave popcorns can have a problem with fat as well; a classic “butter lover’s” microwave popcorn has 8 grams of saturated fat, that’s as much saturated fat as a large order of French fries or a hot-fudge sundae with nuts!

Here are 10 different kinds of popcorn, ranked in order from “best” to “worst”. It’s perfectly okay to eat movie popcorn—once in a while—just eat it 2 – 3 kernels at a time so that you eat less of it.

 Best to Worst
Calories Fat Saturated
1. 94% Fat Free Butter 111 2.1 0.4 189
2. 100 Calorie Pop 120 3.8 1.6 327
3. Light Butter (no diacetyl) 144 4.8 3.0 276
4. Air-popped (plain) 186 2.0 0.0 4
5. Extra Butter (no diacetyl) 204 12.0 7.8 552
6. Buttery Kettle Corn 227 16.0 8.0 267
7. Butter Lover’s 227 16.0 8.0 613
8. “Natural” Buttery Garlic 229 16.4 18.0 611
9. Movie Popcorn (popped in
oil, no added butter)
360 24.0 18.0 n/a
10. Movie Popcorn (with butter) 570 45.0 27.0 n/a


Have a health question for Melanie? Click here to submit your question and Melanie will answer your question on an upcoming Studio 5 segment!


By Melanie Douglass, R.D., NASM

Author: Tip-a-Day Guide to Healthy Living

(Deseret Book, 2007)

© 2007 Melanie Douglass, Deseret Book

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