Popcorn has had a bit of a renaissance lately, becoming a popular quick, tasty snack available in many flavors, rather than something eaten only as a treat at the cinema. I’m a big popcorn fan and decided to investigate whether or not popcorn is safe to eat in pregnancy.
Can you eat popcorn whilst pregnant? Popcorn can be a nutritious and healthy snack as it’s high in fiber, low in calories and is a whole grain, too. However, it’s the coatings and flavors that count – some types of popcorn are less suitable for pregnant women than others, depending on the fat and sugar content.
Since “popcorn” is a broad description and there are so many choices out there these days, I’ve broken down all the common types of popcorn preparations to see which ones are better choices for pregnant women.
The Best Types of Popcorn For Pregnant Women to Snack on
In short, the healthiest type of popcorn in pregnancy is homemade and is air-popped instead of using oil. The best part is that you don’t need to buy anything special like an air popping machine – you just need a paper bag and some corn. Many people don’t believe me when I say this, because it’s presumed that there’s something special about the microwave popcorn you can buy (there isn’t).
The worst types of popcorn in pregnancy are some microwave versions and most types of cinema popcorn (as discussed below). Store-bought bags of popcorn such as kettle corn, caramel corn and so on are also high in sugar and fat and should be avoided in pregnancy with preference given to natural or air-popped corn.
To make home-made air-popped popcorn:
- Put two to three tablespoons of popping corn kernels in a paper bag
- Seal it up in a way that means the kernels won’t escape (I use tape, or you can fold it over a few times)
- Put it in the microwave and press the ‘popcorn’ button if you have one, or set it on high for a couple of minutes and listen for the pops to slow down to a minute apart – as you would with regular microwave popcorn.
- Be careful when opening the bag, since hot steam escapes, but voila – air-popped popcorn. Coat it when it’s still hot if you like – some suggestions are below.
Here’s a demonstration of how it’s done by How to Liveable on Youtube:
Pregnancy-Safe Popcorn Topping Ideas
If you’re making popcorn at home and want to avoid all the calories and fat of butter, caramel and other standard toppings, here are some pregnancy-safe popcorn topping suggestions:
- A little olive oil, salt and dried herbs
- Cheese grated with a Microplane instead of a box grater (this uses far less cheese)
- Nutritional yeast – this is also high in B vitamins and folic acid, but watch your consumption in line with any supplements you’re also taking
- Dust with ground cinnamon or pumpkin spice (or allspice)
- A little maple syrup or pasteurized honey, with crushed cashews or almonds
- A little powdered sugar with vanilla seasoning
Is Microwave Popcorn Safe to Eat in Pregnancy?
By “microwave popcorn” I mean the type you buy in a store or supermarket (Act II, Newman’s Own, Butterkist and so on), and not the type you make yourself, at home, in the microwave.
Historically, the chemicals used to line the bags containing the popcorn used to contain long-chain perfluorinated compounds (PFCs). These chemicals made the bag greaseproof, so any buttery coating wouldn’t seep through the bag. When heated, these chemicals break down to form perfluorooctanoic acid, which has been linked to cancer and other health problems (source: PMC). Subsequently, the use of PFCs in food packaging was banned by the FDA in 2016.
The chemicals used in microwave popcorn packaging have been replaced with “next-generation” PFCs. So far, the FDA has deemed these safe but as they’re so new, any potential long-term health problems have not come to light. The EWG claims the new PFCs have had “limited safety testing”.
Diacetyl is a chemical used to create the “buttery” flavor present in many types of microwave popcorn. It vaporizes when heated, and it has since been linked to lung diseases (source: CDC). In both the USA and in Europe, it’s still legal for use in food, as health problems have only been linked to it when exposure is high (such as those working at the popcorn manufacturing facilities).
For the above reasons, pregnant women may wish to avoid commercially-made microwave popcorn. Like many foods in pregnancy, eating a bag or two will probably not be harmful, but it’s easy to avoid it when there are so many other options for making much healthier popcorn yourself.
Is Cinema / Movie Theater Popcorn Safe For Pregnant Women?
Movie theater popcorn is ‘safe’ for pregnant women in that it doesn’t contain any ingredients that are harmful on their own. However, if you’re pregnant it’s a good idea to either avoid cinema popcorn or cut down on it significantly. This is because movie theater popcorn is laden with calories and fat, and is still high in salt if you choose a savory flavor rather than a sweet one.
Serving sizes at cinemas are much larger than the norm since they want you to have your snack for the duration of a movie. Some tubs are’refillable’ too, tempting you to overeat.
The healthiest option at a movie theater is to choose air-popped corn without butter and salt, if it’s available. Ordering a kid’s portion would be a wise choice, too. Calorie and fat content depends on the cinema chain, but it’s easily the healthiest option.
Adding butter adds needless saturated fat and calories. If you use one of those self-serve butter machines, it becomes easier to overdo it and put way too much butter on your corn. By all means, have some if you want to, but try to keep it to a minimum – you’ll be surprised how much corn a tablespoon of butter can coat! Bear in mind, though, that the butter is likely to be made from chemical compounds and flavorings rather than actual butter. It’s not harmful in moderation, but should be minimized where possible.
It’s not just ‘sweet’ popcorn that is something that should be avoided in pregnancy. Adding salt or other flavorings like cheese also up the sodium to many times above what a recommended level would be. Again, this should be a rare, one-off treat and not a regular snack.
Remember that the theater environment encourages “mindless eating”, where before you know it, the credits are rolling and you’ve eaten a giant bucket of popcorn that – at some cinemas – can come it at over 2000 calories. Yes, that’s two thousand. Consuming so many calories, often in conjunction with fat and salt, should be pared down to a minimum when you’re pregnant.
If I’m Pregnant, Can I Eat Expired / Burned / Unpopped Popcorn Kernels?
It’s better to throw away any expired popcorn, particularly if it’s microwave popcorn, owing to the chemicals that were previously used in the production process (as discussed above).
Eating an unpopped kernel or a slightly burned kernel isn’t unsafe, but it might be hard on the teeth and/or taste bitter, so unless it’s an unusual craving it’s better to stick to the fluffy, popped kernels.
Is Popcorn Good for Morning Sickness?
If you’re making it yourself, you have the flexibility of flavoring the popcorn with something that you know you’ll be able to stomach. Many women find plain or slightly salted snacks in small quantities (like popcorn or crackers) can help with nausea.
Popcorn in its natural form is quite healthy and makes a good snack, so if it’s the only thing you can keep down in the morning then it’s fine as a morning sickness choice.
Can I Eat Popcorn With Gestational Diabetes?
You can eat air-popped, plain or lightly topped popcorn with gestational diabetes as it has a low GI of 55 and is a low-calorie, high fiber snack. However, it’s still a carbohydrate so you’ll need to manage your intake.
Avoid any of the commercial microwave popcorns or movie theater popcorn as this is normally extremely high in sugar (not to mention calories and fat).
Overall, popcorn can be either healthy and nutritious or sky-high in calories, salt and fat – it all depends on the topping and the preparation, so watch out for both during pregnancy.