The next time you tuck into golden, buttery popcorn while watching the latest blockbuster, pause. It's not all that healthy a snack

I just found out. The 50-rupee bag of popcorn I munched my way through at the multiplex has given me much more than mere munching pleasure. All for free. I'm now richer by a thousand calories from fat the popcorn maker has kindly added to give the item its edge. “Despicable Me” is the movie, and that's exactly how I feel.

“Movie popcorn? I suggest you avoid it or stick to the smallest size,” says Shobha Reddy, Founder/CEO, Reddi2Workout. “Large popcorn with butter is not a good choice. It has large amounts of sodium and saturated fat, and the butter flavour is not really butter.”

Popcorn, so much a part of our mall-movie-hopping life, was on the South American native menu thousands of years ago. The corn kernel stores starch, sugar and water, the “energy” a plant needs to grow. The 14 per cent water in it turns into steam when heated and pops the corn.

Early farming populations burned up energy from the corn easily. But for those whose exercise is restricted to hunting for food in the fridge, popcorn energy is simply stored body fat. And, movie popcorn, with its coat of butter (flavour?), salt and sugar will not win a “Healthy Food” contest. It's too rich with too little nutrition value.

Super-size portions

“Some movie halls insist on your buying their XL packets,” complains S. Bhuvaneswari, chief dietician, Apollo Hospitals. “There's no option. Culturally, we won't ‘waste' food, and we chomp off the whole carb-rich corn packet. We sit, eat and watch, burning no calories. Why are we downing these super-sized portions?” Have a meal before going to a movie and share the popcorn with five people, she suggests.

But, popcorn is top-of-the-pops. It's crunchy and smells heavenly. It's safer than store-bought packs of junk. Better than sugar-rich boiled sweets. It's a healthier exchange for fatty, fried foods.

Corn is a natural vegetable. Raw corn kernels have dietary fibre that is good for the system. In their raw state, they are low-cal. A cup of ‘air-popped' popcorn is 30 calories; it includes fibre and protein. It has no saturated fat, trans fats or cholesterol, and packs traces of manganese, folate, niacin, vitamins, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and selenium.

So, where's the harm? In the pre-prepared bag that you pop at home and the prepared version you munch at the movie theatre. Some 60 per cent of the calories in the bag is from fat.

Have you read the “nutritional” information in a ready-to-cook instant popcorn sachet? After popping, every 100 gm of corn has 510 Kcal, 55 gm carbs, 58 gm fatty acids and just 10 gm fibre and 8 gm protein! That should get you to make your own healthy version!

An alternative

Air-pop raw kernels in a cooker, with a spot of vegetable oil. Add only natural salts. Too dry? Drizzle honey on, before digging into a bowl of this home-made fluffy bliss. Air-popped (not microwaved) popcorn is a good alternative to other snacks such as potato chips, candy or cookies.

And, don't use the microwave pack for making popcorn. “Microwave popcorn has less fat, but research says the inner lining of the bag has cancer-causing chemicals that leach into the pops,” warns Shobha.

“Also, a bag of popcorn is often more than one serving, but people usually finish the bag.” Fake butter may be used in this pack too, and its savoury aroma has been linked to lung disease — called “popcorn workers lung” (medical name: bronchiolitis obliterans) — in factory workers who make the popular snack. This condition is now under intense study.

So, make your popcorn the old-fashioned pop-it-in-the-cooker way, or eat it in moderation.

When the theatre shop assistant hands over the overflowing tub of popcorn, he is not doing you a favour. Watch out!

CORN TRUTHS

Popcorn small (plain) 385 calories

Small (butter) 570 calories

Medium (plain) 825 calories

Medium (butter) 1,075 calories

Large (plain) 1,100 calories

Large (butter) 1,485 calories

Microwave popcorn

A cup of regular popcorn is 25 calories; a buttered one is 35 calories (depending on the brand)

Healthy option

Home-made popcorn

1 cup is 22 calories

Place two kernels in a large pan on medium-high heat.

When one pops, pour in 1/3 cup of popcorn and cover.

When the corn begins to pop, shake constantly, allowing steam to escape; else, the popcorn will lose crunch.

Remove pan from heat when the popping stops.

Add seasoning of your choice.