It seems there’s a national food holiday for everything from peanut butter to pancakes. Popcorn is no exception with Popcorn Lovers Day observed the second Thursday in March since 2012. And while an entire day devoted to America’s favorite cinema snack may seem silly, the reality is—this gluten-free grain deserves to be celebrated. Outside of the concession stand line, popcorn is natural, fun to eat—and thankfully—pretty healthy.
It’s been around for thousands of years, but popcorn didn’t really didn’t start popping up popularly in the U.S. until the mid-1800s. Traditionally made with butter or lard, this crunchy treat reached mass appeal thanks to movie theaters. And the invention of the magical microwave kept the trend popping up in homes all over America with the first patent for a microwave popcorn bag issued in 1981, boosting home snacking by tens of thousands of pounds. These days, Americans consume around a million pounds of (unpopped) popcorn every year. Movie theater popcorn continues to be the least healthy option, at over 1,000 calories for a large tub without butter. Add it—which is often non-hydrogenated colored and flavored soybean oil posing as butter—and you’re looking at an extra 130 calories per tablespoon.
Now for the good news: a cup of plain popped kernels comes in on the lighter side at just 31 calories with loads of health benefits. Popcorn is gluten free, high in dietary fiber (to keep you feeling full longer), rich in complex carbohydrates and low in fat. It’s also a 100 percent whole grain snack with important antioxidants called “polyphenols” found in the hull—also known as that seedy part that gets stuck in your teeth. These antioxidants can help protect against cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. Studies have even shown that the serotonin found in popcorn can have relaxing, mood-lifting effects. No wonder everyone loves movie night.
So, how to marry the delicious experience of a theater treat with the healthy benefits kernels offer? The answer: it’s all about the flavor. Here are ten delicious and nutritious options to pop up and into your mouth—from sweet to savory:
- “Skinny” peanut butter kettle corn. Powered peanut butter combined with coconut oil leads to a crunchy concoction that’s vegan, gluten-free, low fat and low calorie. Plus, leftovers stay fresh and crunchy for at least 3 days in an airtight container.
- Apple pie. Not a baker? Not to worry. You can still have all of the flavors of America’s favorite pie with this mix. Combining cinnamon, apple pie spice and vanilla gives you a guilt-free and filling snack. A bit of Stevia keeps it sugar-free and it only takes 30 seconds—that’s easy as pie!
- Cranberry white chocolate. This combo is low in sugar but still sweet thanks to white baking chocolate and dried cranberries, which can help boost your immune system and digestion plus reduce bad cholesterol. One serving is just 126 calories and 7 grams of protein.
- Vanilla almond. This affordable option for a sweet corn comes in at just $.20 per serving. The recipe uses coconut oil, dates, almonds and vanilla extract for a dessert experience without all the extra sugar and butter. Dates are high in fiber and an excellent natural sweetener, while almonds are loaded with healthy fats, protein, magnesiumand vitamin E.
- Mint chocolate chip. This easy recipe will remind you of a trip to the ice cream stand on a summer day. The glaze is made with just a bit of honey and with a few simple swaps, it can easily be vegan. A cup of this ice cream-esque nosh comes in at just about 160 calories.
- Vegan cheese. Cheese, please. This vegan and dairy-free option uses nutritional yeast to serve as a plant-based source of cheddar flavor. Yummy spices of cumin and turmeric (a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant), along with raw cashews (that promote good cholesterol), add to the appeal of this lighter cheesy crunch.
- Coconut curry. Craving Thai food? Get the payoff in snack form instead of expensive carryout with this vegan delight. Toasted coconut flakes and coconut oil (lowers cholesterol, energy-boosting and great for your skin) combine with curry and ginger spices to give you that Thai food feeling without the high fat and calories—or a delivery fee.
- Spicy cilantro lime. Love Mexican flavors? This south-of-the-border formula uses a store-bought light salt and lime microwave popcorn as a base. Or, make your own using plain popped corn, fresh squeezed lime juice and a pinch of sea salt. Mix in some fresh cilantro with vitamin A to support vision and boost heart health. Once you sprinkle on some spicy cayenne pepper, garlic and cumin—you’ve got a fiesta for your taste buds without the high sodium content you’ll find in restaurant Mexican dishes.
- Sweet and spicy wasabi. It’s not just for sushi. Wasabi is high in potassium, low in sodium and gives plain popcorn a delicious umami flavor. A little brown sugar and cayenne pepper in this Asian mixture adds the sweet and spicy balance to make a flavorful crunch at just 112 calories per serving.
- Rosemary parmesan. Use fresh (not dried) rosemary, fresh garlic and even fresher Parmesan cheese in this all-natural combo that pops up plenty for a crowd. As a bonus, rosemary is known to help with digestion, improve concentration and even ease stress.
Whether you go sweet or savory this Popcorn Lovers Day or during that next movie night, remember to cut down on oil, butter and salt atop that freshly popped corn. Instead, opt for alternative seasonings, sauces and new flavor combos that are just as delicious and way more nutritious. Happy popping!