5 August 201913 ways to flavor popcorn without adding calories

Name a diet-friendly snack that's crunchy, convenient, tasty, low calorie, low sodium, low fat and whole grain. You guessed it: popcorn. It's on every healthy snack list. What could be wrong?

The popcorn that fits that low calorie description is plain, air-popped popcorn. At roughly 30 calories per cup, you could treat yourself to 3 cups for a 100-calorie whole-grain snack. But it would be a very bland-tasting snack. That's why people douse it in melted butter and salt.

And that's the main problem with popcorn. We're used to popcorn with added calories from fat, salt and sweeteners. It becomes a tasty high calorie snack that's hard to stop eating. If you're sitting in a movie theater with a giant bucket of seasoned popcorn, you might not even notice how much you're eating.

Fortunately your choice isn't between low calorie air-popped and salty, butter-drenched movie-theater popcorn. There are plenty of lower calorie varieties available in convenient microwaveable bags, in flavors that don't add a lot of salt or sugar. The key is to read the Nutrition Facts panel, paying attention to serving size to keep the calories, sodium and fat under control.

Or you can flavor your own popcorn. Here are some unusual flavors you can add at home:

  1. Cinnamon

  2. Cocoa powder

  3. Dried herbs

  4. Chili powder

  5. Minced lemon or lime zest

  6. Garlic powder

  7. Black pepper

  8. Parmesan cheese

  9. Curry powder

  10. Five Spice Powder

  11. Cayenne

  12. Sriracha

  13. Tomato powder

These all have strong flavors, so you don't need much, just toss your popcorn with a pinch or sprinkling of seasoning. Happily, none of these will add significant calories or sodium. If you are going to add salt, just a shake or two of salt on one serving should be sufficient. The USDA sodium listing for salted popcorn is only 100 mg per cup of popcorn. That's 1/24th of a teaspoon of salt.

What about adding fats? Fats add calories, and aren't essential to flavorful popcorn. When adding fats to popcorn, just be very strict about portions. Most popcorn recipes use just 1-2 teaspoons of fat per serving. Unfortunately, the shape of popcorn kernels makes it easy for added fats to pool up and hide inside the kernels, tempting you to pour on more.

Butter is traditional, but you can have fun experimenting with other fats for different flavors. Coconut oil is one option, used in this tasty recipe for Sweet and Spicy Popcorn. You can also use nut oils, such as walnut, sesame or almond as well as olive oil, which would blend nicely with grated Parmesan cheese and garlic powder.

Another idea: mix popcorn with other foods. I've seen recipes that use dried fruit, chocolate chunks, nuts, coconut flakes, sun dried tomatoes, bacon bits and minced pepperoni, although not all in the same recipe. Honey and brown sugar are also popular ingredients. Keep in mind, these all add calories. If popcorn is frequently on your snack radar screen, it's best to stick to non-caloric flavors. Here are some mix-and-match ideas:

  • Chili powder + lime zest

  • Curry powder and cayenne

  • Parmesan, garlic and black pepper

  • Tomato powder and oregano

  • Cinnamon and cocoa powder

Originally Published January 27, 2016
Updated August 5, 2019

Donna P Feldman MS RDN is author of Feed Your Vegetarian Teen and Food Wisdom for Women: nutrition for aging with energy, vitality and health. Donna writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition and is co-host of the Walk Talk Nutrition podcast.
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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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Foods & Recipes/Popcorn Meal Planning & Diets/Snacks

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