Popcorn Has Always Been a Dietitian-Approved Snack, but These Brands Are Making It Even Healthier

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I've been covering food and health for over four years, and I have yet to meet a dietitian who doesn't like popcorn. As far as healthy snacks goes, it's a rec right up there with apples and nut butter or veggies and hummus.

"For starters, it’s a plant, and choosing a plant that is actually food, over manufactured calories is always preferred," registered dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD tells me, when I ask her why so many dietitians and nutritionists are into popcorn. "Second, it's high in nutrients, including antioxidants and fiber." Talk about a win-win.

Snack bags of pre-air popped popcorn are nothing new. But lately, smaller brands have been emerging that are making the snack even better by sourcing corn that isn't genetically modified—quite a feat when you consider that 92 percent of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. Then, they're adding nutritious add-ons to it, like pea protein, spirulina, or nutritional yeast.

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This is not your mom's bag of Skinny Pop. These healthy popcorn brands are Air-Popped Popcorn 2.0, making the snack healthier and better-tasting than ever.

Upping the nutritional ante

Popcorn is already a snack full of fiber (hence why Kirkpatrick and other RDs are so into it), but it's relatively low in another nutrient healthy eaters are often trying to get more of: protein. The founders of Pop Zero ($3.99) decided to change that by adding pea protein. "Our decision to add in additional protein was driven by our customers. The research was overwhelming that people want snacks that keep them fuller, for longer," says Tori Bailey, Pop Zero's brand manager.

Of course, there are a lot of protein options to choose from. Bailey says they landed on pea because it's a complete protein, which means it has all nine essential amino acids that the body can't make on its own. And unlike whey, it's also vegan, making the snack appealing to a wider range of people.

Azzizah’s Herbal Green Popcorn ($14.77) founder Azzizah Rahim also decided to enhance the nutritional profile of popcorn with a healthy add-in: spirulina, a type of algae that has very high concentrations of protein, iron, potassium, zinc, calcium, and B vitamins. "I decided to add spirulina because I had iron deficiencies while nursing my children and found that it was a good source of iron and other nutrients," Rahim says. She was also into its emerald green color. "My children actually started to associate the green vegetables I was feeding them with the tasty green popcorn snacks they were getting," she says. (File that under genius parenting hacks.)

Creating a bolder flavor using healthy herbs and oils

Besides being combined with powerhouse nutrients, popcorn is also tasting even better thanks to some bold flavor blends using the healthiest pantry stars (rather than the ultra-refined and processed oils and artificial flavorings traditionally used on popcorn). Azzizah's Herbal Green Popcorn, for example, uses a blend of nutritional yeast, curry powder, basil, garlic powder, onion powder, turmeric, cayenne pepper, sea salt, and olive oil. "I came up with this blend initially by using the spices available in my kitchen, which included my favorite Indian, African, and Caribbean spices," Rahim says. But the most important ingredient on that list, she says, was nutritional yeast. "As a vegan, I needed something to replace the Parmesan cheese popcorn I [loved] and discovered that nutritional yeast would give my popcorn a savory, cheesy taste."

Nutritional yeast is also a core ingredient in Three Dads Popcorn ($3.99). (Organic onion powder, organic garlic powder, and pink Himalayan salt are also used.) "Nutritional yeast, or 'nooch' as many call it, has been a recipe staple in our kitchens for years," co-founder Adam Cordell says. "We’ve been making popcorn with nutritional yeast in our homes for years. Our family and friends all loved our popcorn so much that we decided to start Three Dads Natural Foods."

One popcorn that's become a cult favorite in the wellness world is Sakara's Sweet, Salty, and Cheezy Popcorn Trio ($45). You remember those popcorn bins the Boy Scouts would sell every year around the holidays? It's like that, only better. Besides coconut oil and pink Himalayan salt, the only other ingredients used are coconut sugar (in the Sweet) and nutritional yeast (in the Cheezy). "In complete Sakara fashion, we reimagined a classic snack into something filled with healthful ingredients—and without the toxic, carcinogenic ingredients often found in microwave popcorn," co-founder Danielle Duboise says.

Co-founder Whitney Tingle says besides the flavor, another reason why the popcorn is so tasty is the coconut sugar, which she says was chosen just as much for its nutritional benefits as the flavor. "Coconut sugar is a lower glycemic index sweetener, meaning it doesn’t spike your blood sugar the same way white sugar or high-fructose corn syrup will," she says. It also contains small amounts of minerals like iron and potassium, as well as some antioxidants, she adds.

Another organic popcorn brand that uses coconut oil to give the snack a hint of sweetness is Project Pop ($22 for a 2-pack). "I really, really love coconut oil. It's bold, nutty, and slightly sweet," founder Chauniqua Major says. "Before I started making popcorn, I used it for years in my hair, on my skin, and while cooking. There is something about the flavor profile of coconut oil that makes our popcorn taste amazing." Major specifies that Project Pop uses organic unrefined virgin coconut oil in particular, which she says has a bolder flavor than refined coconut oil. "I tested 13 different oils before landing on the perfect one because the coconut flavor makes a big difference in our popcorn," she says.

Pop Zero doesn't just use any old oil either. Instead of the ubiquitous canola, algae oil is used. "People expect more from their food. Not only do they want snacks that taste good, but also that are good for you and good for the environment. This is why we chose to use algae oil, instead of more traditional oils that you see in popcorn," Bailey says. (Algae is a sustainable food source in that it's relatively easy to produce with a limited impact on the environment.) It's also very nutrient-rich, containing vitamin A, vitamin B-12, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids.

From the corn being used, the oils, and what's sprinkled on top, clearly popcorn has gotten a major upgrade. As if dietitians didn't love it enough already.

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