Let's be honest: popcorn cravings are real, and most of us don't have time to whip up a stovetop batch at home when we need a crunchy, satisfying, movie night treat. Instead, we turn to microwave popcorn.
Popcorn is full of fiber, low in fat and calories, and a whole grain food. But if regular ol' popcorn is such a smart snack choice, why is there a reason why you should second guess your microwave popcorn consumption? (Related: What Happens To Your Body When You Eat Popcorn.)
One reason: extra ingredients. When you make popcorn at home, you probably use a little bit of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt; but when you pop a bag of the microwave stuff, you're often choosing a snack with two or three times as many ingredients. (Spoiler alert: more often than not this extra stuff isn't great for you.)
So which ingredients are the biggest offenders? Here's a breakdown. Read on, and for more on how to eat healthy, don't miss 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now.
Brands no longer use trans fats in their popcorn products (yay!), but some now use palm oil instead (boo!).
That's not great for your heart health: one 2015 study published in The Journal of Nutrition suggests palm oil increases LDL cholesterol more than vegetable oil thanks to its higher saturated fat content.
But regardless of whether it's palm oil or vegetable oil on the ingredient list of your microwave popcorn, there's a high likelihood that you'll be eating a good amount of saturated fat when you grab a handful. Some of the worst microwave popcorn bags contain between four and six grams of saturated fat per serving, accounting for anywhere between 20 and 30% of your daily value of the nutrient in just one serving.
Have you checked the sodium on your favorite bag of microwave popcorn? Unless your brand says it uses no salt, you could be consuming upwards of 300 milligrams of sodium per serving. (FYI, the ideal daily intake of sodium is 1,500 milligrams, per the American Heart Association, so that's 20% of your daily intake in just a small snack.)
Studies have shown that diets higher in sodium are associated with hypertension; one 2015 study in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology, for example, suggests that excess sodium can affect many different body systems, causing adverse effects on your brain and kidneys, along with your cardiovascular system.
Many bags of microwave popcorn contain chemicals meant to preserve the ingredients, add flavoring, and keep grease from soaking through the bag. Manufacturers used to use perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the exposure of which was linked to numerous types of cancer and some other negative health conditions. This led to the entire microwave popcorn industry removing from their popcorns.
But while popcorn manufacturers have stopped using certain PFAS known to be harmful, plenty of other PFAS substitutes are being used. A 2020 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that microwave popcorn almost always contains some amount of PFAs—and that people who regularly eat it have higher serum levels of these compounds than those who don't.
The bottom line
Thinking about throwing out that package of microwaveable buttery goodness sitting in your pantry? We don't blame you! But before you do, know this: While microwave popcorn as a whole category can be a minefield of unhealthy options, that doesn't mean you need to swear off the stuff entirely. There are plenty of better-for-you options that make it easy for you to enjoy this healthy snack without all the effort of making it from scratch. See: 9 Healthiest Microwave Popcorn Brands (& The Bags to Skip).
But it is true that some pre-packaged microwave popcorns can turn a healthy food into one full of bad-for-you ingredients.
To give yourself complete control over what you're eating, skip the shortcut and pop your own corn, even if it takes a couple of extra minutes (your watchlist queue isn't going anywhere). For some inspiration, check out 20 Delicious Ways to Dress Up Your Popcorn.