Unfortunately, that’s not an easy question to answer. Depending on which type of popcorn you want to eat, the carb counts (and overall calories) can vary a lot. On the keto diet — or looking to go on one — calculating the net carbs in this popular treat can change how you snack.
It might surprise you that microwave popcorn has a lower net carb count than air popped popcorn. But you have to watch how much popcorn you eat to stay below that carb ceiling.
So when you snag your ticket to the next Marvel movie, think twice about what size popcorn you order.
A Brief Background of Popcorn
Possibly prepared and eaten by Peruvians as long as 6,000 years ago, popcorn has gained popularity since the 1800s. In the 1890s, the popcorn maker was invented — around the same time movies were invented.
Popcorn is unique, but how it works is simple. Popcorn kernels contain water and oil. When heated, the kernels expand and explode. Voila, a delicious snack!
Though cob corn is considered to be a vegetable, popcorn is a whole grain, so there are bound to be some carbs involved. (To be overly picky, popcorn kernels are technically a grain and a fruit.)
Popular additives to popcorn include:
- Spices and herbs
How many total carbs are in popcorn?
Let’s talk about popcorn nutrition. The total carbs in this snack food are important to understand. (Scroll to the next section for net carbs.)
Popcorn’s carb content depends on how the popcorn is prepared. It is best to divide popcorn into five types: microwavable, air-popped, oil-popped, kettle corn, and movie theatre popcorn.
Obviously, always check the nutrition facts on your popcorn purchase when you are watching your carb intake. But these are pretty good estimates as to how many total carbs you will find in different types of popcorn.
- Microwavable popcorn has a pretty low total carbohydrate count. One cup of popcorn fresh out of the microwave contains 5-10 grams of carbs. *Most microwavable popcorn comes in bags of between 12 and 15 cups of popped popcorn.
- Air-popped popcorn has the lowest calorie count, but the carbs are higher than microwavable popcorn. One cup of air popped popcorn usually contains between 7-20 grams of carbs.
- Oil-popped popcorn is similar to microwave popcorn in carb count. It typically hovers between 5-10 grams of carbs per cup of popped popcorn.
- Kettle corn often has a higher carb content. One cup of popped kettle corn contains 10-21 grams of carbohydrates. Kettle corn also has the highest calorie count, on average.
- Movie theatre popcorn is, by far, the popcorn with the most carbs if you eat it in its native “serving size”. A small tub, which is usually anywhere from 6-11 cups (individual servings) of popcorn includes no less than 40 total grams of carbs. Eating a large tub of movie popcorn can put you as high as 120 total carbs.
Net Carbs in One Cup of Popcorn
Whenever you are calculating “net carbs”, be sure to subtract dietary fiber from the carb count. Net carbs simply refers to the digestible carbohydrates in a food.
Popcorn contains some fiber. For the purposes of keto or other low-carb diets, subtract the fiber from the carbs to get the net carbs.
- Microwavable popcorn: 3-8 net carbs per cup
- Air-popped popcorn: 2-5 net carbs per cup
- Oil-popped popcorn: 3-8 grams of net carbs per cup
- Kettle corn: 8-11 net carbs per cup
- Movie theater popcorn: 3-6 net carbs per cup (if you can limit yourself to just a cup from a massive bucket)
How many carbs are in movie theater popcorn?
Can’t you just smell that sweet movie theater popcorn smell? Don’t get tempted just yet…
It can be difficult to estimate movie theatre popcorn’s nutrition facts when every theatre prepares its popcorn differently.
Honestly, movie theatre popcorn is going to have a similar number of carbs as your homemade air-popped popcorn (probably no more than 6 net grams).
There are two important things to consider, though.
1) How much popcorn is in a tub?
When the employees at your local Regal scoop in your popcorn, it’s hard to keep track of how many scoops they threw in.
An easy solution is to ask for an empty water cup that you can measure the popcorn with. Eight ounces is one cup’s worth.
Or… you could always sneak in your digital scale. (Too much?)
2) How much “butter” is automatically added?
In low-carb diets, butter is not necessarily the enemy. But in movie theatres, having any real dairy in the “butter” would lead to rapid spoiling, which is why most chains don’t use it.
The butter flavoring in movie theatres is typically vegetable oil, which have no place in a low-carb diet like keto. Don’t let the healthy-sounding word “vegetable” confuse you. Vegetable oils can lead to inflammation, oxidative stress, and a messed up metabolism.
Interestingly, two very popular chains (AMC and Regal) boast the use of coconut oil to pop their corn. Although that may sound more keto-friendly, their “butter” is still artificial butter flavoring.
The bottom line? Stay away from the popcorn at the theater in order to avoid the unsavory ingredients it likely contains.
Carbs in Popcorn with Butter
We all love to slather our popcorn in butter. That may be fine, as long as it isn’t butter flavor.
On a low carb diet like keto, butter is a high-quality fat that’s also low on carbohydrates. But there may be potential issues with all dairy products when it comes to keto. Many people discover they are lactose intolerant, which comes with its own side effects:
- Stomach pain
Even if you do not have an allergy to dairy, you may want to avoid casein.
Casein is the main protein in milk and other dairy products. Casein naturally contains a molecular opioid that can increase hunger cravings. This means your keto weight loss goals can be undermined by dairy products if you aren’t careful.
Though butter is not a bad thing altogether, you want to be careful pouring it over your cup of popcorn. It can flare up an allergy or make you feel hungry faster.
Tips to Make Popcorn Better For You
If you’re craving popcorn, make it as healthy as possible.
Since you can’t control the carb count, control the other variables instead. By popping your own popcorn, you hold more control over the calories, added sugars, and unhealthy fats.
Either air-popped popcorn or oil-popped popcorn can be cooked over your own stovetop. If popping with oil, use non-vegetable oils, such as:
- Coconut oil
- Avocado Oil
- Peanut Oil
A keto friendly alternative to butter is ghee. When you have popped the kernels, pour a helping of melted ghee on top.
Avoid sugary additives like caramel, unless you’re using a keto-friendly caramel recipe. Eating popcorn is often measured by the handful, but try to eat one kernel at a time to make the snack last longer.
In the past, microwave popcorn earned a huge warning label from the health community. Its packaging and flavorings contained PFOAs (the same stuff that gives Teflon pans their bad reputation) and diacetyl (a chemical that can cause lung issues when inhaled).
Fortunately, all major manufacturers got rid of this after the CDC published its findings on these chemicals in microwave popcorn.
Even so, pre-bagged microwavable kernels are still filled with butter substitutes, inflammatory oils, preservatives, and other packaging chemicals that have a bad reputation. It’s more convenient, but at a significant cost.
Above all, stick to a strict portion size.
Can you eat popcorn on a low carb keto diet?
It’s unlikely that snacking on a few cups of popcorn will knock you out of ketosis. A serving of popcorn will not push you over your daily carb limit. (The typical serving size is three cups of popped popcorn.)
Popcorn can serve as a low-calorie snack, even with ghee, grass-fed butter, or coconut oil to add some healthy fat content. The dietary fiber in popcorn can also make you feel full longer.
Popcorn has negligible protein, vitamins, and minerals, which is why it’s not the best snack to rely on while on the ketogenic diet. But feel free to have a three-cup serving of air-popped popcorn every once in a while as a treat.
When on the ketogenic diet, high-quality fats are important to come by. By making sure your popcorn includes plenty of healthy fat content, you’ll keep your macros in check.
Microwave popcorn has more fat content than other types of popcorn. But 75 percent of the fat content is saturated and trans fat (meaning the worst kind of fats). Only 25 percent of the fat are healthy fats — monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Air-popped popcorn has the lowest fat content of all the types of popcorn, but you can tweak the macros by adding oils or butter.
Alternative Snacks or “Keto Popcorn”
Though it may sometimes seem a restrictive diet, keto and other low carb diets allow for some great healthy “keto popcorn” snacks.
Below are some great keto snack options to add to your keto meal plan. These are all low carb snacks but offer more nutritional value than popcorn (which leads to more health benefits).
- Beef jerky
- Pork rinds
- Pecans, almonds, pistachios, walnuts
- Hard boiled eggs
However, one of our favorite “keto popcorn” alternatives is cheese crisps. They are easy to snack on and give that crunchy, salty, deliciousness that popcorn offers.
If you’re looking for a little more adventure, there are hundreds of recipes for keto friendly snacks! My favorites are cinnamon keto granola and keto pigs in a blanket. The ideal popcorn substitutes should be high-fat and moderate in protein.
- Popcorn is a massively popular snack, especially among Americans.
- Popcorn by itself is a good low carb snack. But butter substitutes, inflammatory oils, salt, and caramel can decrease the keto-related health benefits and push you over your daily carb limit.
- Movie theater popcorn is often slathered with butter flavoring, which is typically a type of inflammatory vegetable oil.
- To make eating popcorn as healthy as possible, cook your own popcorn at home. Avoid salt and sugary additives. Consider replacing the butter with ghee.
- Popcorn substitutes can be just as tasty. Alternative keto snacks include nuts, eggs, olives, pork rinds, and beef jerky.
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