Microwave popcorn is the perfect crunchy, salty, and sometimes sweet snack. Who can resist the sound of the kernels popping and the smell wafting from the kitchen as you're sitting down to watch a movie? By itself, popcorn is a nutritious pick, but depending on what popcorn brands choose to season it with, it's no wonder why many people ask if microwave popcorn is bad for you. Although popcorn is a whole grain, low-calorie, high-fiber snack, it's also one of the easiest foods to overeat, and it can quickly become unhealthy if loaded up with fatty oils.
To make sure one of the best low-calorie snacks stays healthy, we asked registered dietitians for the low down on the healthiest microwave popcorn brands to pop and which bags you should drop.
How to choose a healthy microwave popcorn
Choosing the healthiest microwave popcorn that you also enjoy boils down to a few key factors. From nutritional standards to other red flags, you'll definitely want to pay attention to the:
"Almost always, the entire bag is not one serving. You need to read the nutrition facts label and see how many servings are in one bag to avoid an excess of calories," says Erika Fox, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist at 310 Nutrition. "Treating yourself and enjoying foods you love (even if they're not 'healthy') is a part of life; however, popcorn is a very mindless snack. When you're eating it, you're usually watching television and end up overindulging. In this case, especially if you're consuming it often, make sure to choose a 'healthier' version!"
"Look for popcorn that is made with simple, whole-food ingredients, such as non-GMO corn, sea salt, and healthy oils like coconut or avocado oil," Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, at Balance One Supplements, tells Eat This, Not That! "Avoid brands that contain artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives."
"When it comes to [buying the healthiest] microwave popcorn, my recommendation is to find one with minimal ingredients," adds Fox. "As simple as popcorn can be, many brands often load their products with additives, artificial ingredients, extremely processed oils, a lot of salt, and more."
Gans also points out that "most ingredients that one should be wary of are actually ingredients that are mostly no longer used in microwave popcorn. Specifically, [manufacturers stopped using] a butter flavoring, diacetyl, that had been associated with an increase in lung damage."
Sodium, added sugars, & saturated fat
"Check the nutrition label for sodium and saturated fat content," says Best. "Look for brands that have no more than 150 milligrams of sodium and less than 2 grams of saturated fat per serving."
"Some brands are adding sugar to their popcorn, especially if they are making a kettle corn variety," adds Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, registered dietitian and author of The First Time Mom's Pregnancy Cookbook and Fueling Male Fertility. "Watch out for too many added sugars, too."
"[The saturated fat content] is also known as 'bad' fat, and can have negative effects on the body," says Fox.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025, you should limit your saturated intake to less than 10% of your total calories.
"Unfortunately, microwave popcorn is often a big culprit [of saturated fat intake]," Fox continues.
Some popcorn brands contain over 25% of your daily value of saturated fat in a small serving.
Polyfluorinated substances (PFAS)
"Some microwavable popcorn bags are lined with PFAS, which are chemicals that repel water and grease," explains Manaker. "While this is a good thing for avoiding soggy popcorn bags during the popping process, high exposure of these chemicals are linked to outcomes like high cholesterol, higher risk of certain cancers, and pregnant people birthing babies with a lower birthweight."
"Because of this, choosing microwavable popcorn that does not lean on PFAS is recommended," Manaker advises. "Microwavable popcorn that requires butter or oil to be added after the popcorn is popped is typically free from PFAS. Many people don't realize that popping your own popcorn is quite easy to do. Bonus? It can be an economical method, too."
I'm sure you wouldn't expect that so much deliberation would be necessary when trying to pick the healthiest microwave popcorn brand that best suits your appetite. But don't worry—we've got your back! In addition to asking RDs for their advice on how to choose a quality microwavable popcorn while avoiding caloric catastrophes and saturated fat bombs, we also found out which brands they thought were among the best and worst microwave popcorns around.
Read on to learn their recommendations for the healthiest popcorn brands you can buy, and which ones we think are better left on grocery store shelves. Also, for more healthy eating tips to help simplify snacking, be sure to check out 6 Healthy Snack Ideas To Slow Aging.
11 Healthiest Microwave Popcorns You Can Buy
"Connect Popcorn is free from PFAS," says Manaker. "Purchasing this popcorn supports small, family-owned farms, and it is lower in fat than many other options on the market. Bonus? It tastes great!"
"This popcorn is made with organic non-GMO popcorn kernels, coconut oil, and sea salt," explains Best. "It has only 40 milligrams of sodium and 2 grams of saturated fat per serving."
"This particular brand does not use any palm oil, has a lower amount of sodium per serving compared to other brands, and provides an interesting flavor," says Gans.
"The packaging is also free of chemicals like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), which are commonly found in traditional microwave popcorn bags," adds Best.
"This popcorn is made with non-GMO popcorn kernels, sea salt, and sunflower oil," says Best. "It has only 35 milligrams of sodium and 1.5 grams of saturated fat per serving. It also contains no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives."
"If you can't deal with 'no salt', definitely try this product. as it has some sodium, but not enough to be of any health concerns," says registered dietitian Jonathan Valdez, RDN, CDN, owner of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
"For butter lovers, this should hit the spot with its natural butter flavor. And it has less than 200 mg of sodium," says Gans.
"This one also has just a handful of simple ingredients (including butter), and each bag is only 160 calories," says Charlotte Martin, MS, RDN, CSOWM, CPT, owner of Shaped By Charlotte. "This is perfect for if you're snacking alone and want some help exercising portion control."
"It has just 4 simple ingredients and is one of the few brands that has actual butter in it, instead of butter flavor," says Martin.
"This has half the total AND saturated fat content than most leading microwave popcorn brands and no artificial flavors," says Martin.
"This is my top pick for healthiest microwave popcorn because it only contains popcorn and/or sea salt!" says Fox. "With minimal ingredients and nothing crazy processed, it is a great low-sodium popcorn treat. [Popcorn] doesn't have to be flavorless to be healthy! Get creative and dress up your popcorn by adding some toppings like extra-virgin olive oil or avocado oil, your favorite seasonings, etc!"
If you need a low-calorie popcorn, opt for this bag by Healthy Heart Market. "This popcorn has zero grams of saturated fat and is very low in calories," says Valdez.
"Although this option has the normal 4g of saturated fat you see with a lot of other brands, I wanted to include this as a top option for kettle corn fanatics, as it is a great alternative option for sweet & salty flavor," says Fox. "It contains minimal ingredients, and the main benefit is that it doesn't use artificial sweeteners as a source of sugar. Although it does have a little bit of sugar, it's very minimal at 1g per serving."
7 Worst Microwave Popcorn Brands You Can Buy
"It contains a long list of ingredients that don't seem necessary given that there are plenty of microwaveable popcorn options with just a few simple ingredients," says Martin. "I also try to stay away from artificial flavors when possible, and many microwaveable popcorn options are free of them."
"This popcorn is low in protein and fiber, and high in saturated fat," says Valdez.
"This popcorn is the lowest I found in both fiber and protein, at 0 grams each," says Valdez.
"This particular popcorn has a whopping 5g of saturated fat in one serving," says Fox. "In addition, it contains processed oils/ingredients, natural flavors (which can mean a wide variety of things that are not actually natural), as well as artificial flavors, and preservatives."
"This flavor of Jolly Time is filled with additives, including modified food starch, dextrin, and more," says Fox. "It also contains sugar as well as artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and more."
"Pop Secret Kettle Corn might seem like a better alternative compared to Jolly Time's (which I would technically agree that it is), but I also wanted to include it on this list to point out the 'not so great' ingredients that it does have," says Fox. "Although it has a lot less processed ingredients, it does use artificial sugar for its sweet taste and, like many other brands, uses processed oils. It also has almost 5g of saturated fat, which can add up when consumed in excess."
"With this flavor, in particular, I really want to highlight that just because something is marketing as a 'health' or 'weight loss' item, doesn't mean it's the healthiest option. Yes, this flavor does contain less saturated fat, and I think that's awesome, but I often find that many people only focus on the numbers and not the ingredients," says Fox. "When you compare this to many other popcorn brands (some of which I've already named), it has the same unhealthy ingredients, just less of them."
A previous version of this story was published on January 9, 2019. It has since been updated to include additional copy and proofreading revisions, additional research, and updated contextual links.