One of the most pressing questions of any low-carb or keto dieter is: what kinds of snack options are keto friendly? And of all the snacks available, popcorn seems to take first place as the most popular.
In the United States alone, the total annual consumption of popcorn is 13 billion quarts of popped popcorn[*]. That’s about 42 quarts of popcorn per person, on average.
And with airy quality, salty taste, and crunch, you might be wondering: is popcorn keto-friendly?
Read on to learn about the carbs and net carbs in popcorn, practical tips to fit popcorn into your low-carb, high-fat lifestyle, and the final word on this low-calorie snack and the keto diet.
Humans first cultivated corn or maize at least 10,000 years ago, in what is now Mexico. Corn is a staple food, and the most widely grown grain crop in the Americas, with production approaching 400 million metric tons per year.
The six major types of corn are called dent corn, flint corn, pod corn, popcorn, flour corn, and sweet corn. Flint corn, sometimes called Indian corn or calico corn, is also used to make popcorn. The two most common strains of corn used for popcorn are Zea mays and Zea mays everta.
A Modern History of Popcorn
People have enjoyed popcorn for thousands of years. Archaeologists recently found popcorn fossils (yes, popcorn fossils) in Peru that are over 6000 years old[*].
In the 19th century, people popped corn on stove-tops by hand. The kernels were available on the East Coast of the United States, sold as “Pearls” or “Nonpareils” (meaning “without parallel”). The first written usage of the term “popped corn” popped up in John Russell Bartlett’s 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms.
In the 1890s, a Chicago candy store owner named Charles Cretor invented a steam-powered popcorn maker that was inspired by nut-roasting machines. He sold popcorn from street carts using his steam-powered popcorn maker design, which is still in use today.
Popcorn grew in popularity during the Great Depression as an inexpensive snack. The popcorn business thrived even as other companiesc failed, and popcorn production became a source of income for struggling farmers.
During World War II, sugar rationing cut into the production of candy, and American popcorn production tripled.
People began bringing their own popcorn to theaters, which dismayed theater owners, who felt that the snack distracted cinema-goers. Soon, though, popcorn makers appeared in the lobbies of theaters throughout the United States.
Orville Redenbacher launched his famous popcorn brand in 1970, and in 1981 General Mills patented the first microwave popcorn bag. Popcorn consumption continued to increase in the ensuing years and remains a tremendously popular snack today.
A single cup of air-popped popcorn, which weighs just 8 grams, has:
A typical five-cup serving of air-popped popcorn contains:
1 cup of stovetop popcorn cooked with coconut oil contains:
A five-cup serving of stovetop popcorn cooked in coconut oil has:
Air-popped popcorn has a relatively low glycemic index (GI) of 55. Thanks to its high volume and its fiber content, popcorn is also quite filling, so compared to most snack foods it’s easy to control your portions if you snack on popcorn.
To avoid harmful pesticides like glyphosate (Roundup), non-GMO or organic popcorn is the healthiest choice.
And be sure you steer clear of microwave popcorn, which tends to have unhealthy refined oils high in omega-6 fatty acids.
According to standard popcorn nutrition facts, you should be able to eat about a cup of popcorn and still stay in ketosis.
If you’re new to a low-carb lifestyle, or just starting the ketogenic diet, cutting out your favorite carb snacks can be a difficult process.
As your body adapts to ketosis, you may experience cravings for comfort foods, or temporarily feel a dip in your energy levels as you make the change. Luckily, as long as you’re careful, you can fit some popcorn into your keto diet.
A single cup of oil-popped popcorn using coconut oil has just 5 grams of net carbs and 2-3 grams of healthy fat. It’s filling and can satisfy your carb snack craving safely, without kicking you out of ketosis. Go for it.
But there are plenty of times when popcorn won’t fit into your keto lifestyle.
When You Should Avoid Popcorn on a Keto Diet
Which one seems more likely: having a single cup of tasty popcorn, or having five cups of popcorn in a sitting? For most people, self-discipline around food is not the easiest thing, so if you find yourself eating lots of popcorn, you probably shouldn’t make it a daily snack.
The number of carbs you can eat per day on keto will vary according to your body type, goals, and health history. Some people can eat a full five-cup serving of popcorn with 25 grams of net carbs and stay in ketosis, but that’s not true for everyone.
If you find yourself overeating, gaining unwanted body fat, not losing weight, or otherwise not hitting your keto goals, you might want to avoid popcorn on keto.
If you do make popcorn, use the stove-top method or an air-popper instead of microwave popcorn. That way you have control over what oils and topping you add, and you can avoid unnecessary artificial flavors and other unhealthy ingredients.
If you’re on the keto diet, you can use coconut oil, butter, or olive oil to cook popcorn on the stove, or you can add healthy fats after you air-pop it.
Remember that even on a strict keto diet, popcorn won’t be your only source of net carbs. Don’t forget to factor in all carb sources as you track your daily carbs to ensure you don’t exceed your limit and exit ketosis.
If you aren’t sure how many carbs to eat per day, the Perfect Keto Macronutrient Calculator is an excellent resource.
Believe it or not, popcorn can be keto-friendly. While most people can’t get away with a full five-cup serving of popcorn every day on the keto diet, it’s an okay option for a weekly treat.
It’s not the number one choice for a keto-friendly snack, but compared to most healthy snack options it’s low-calorie, filling, and free of trans fats and artificial flavors. Just make sure it doesn’t contain toxic oils by making it yourself or buying a pre-popped brand you trust.
The key to enjoying popcorn on a ketogenic diet is to limit your daily net carb intake, control your portions, and track your progress towards your goals.
If you’re making progress towards your goals while eating some popcorn, then it’s working for you. If you’re not making progress, it’s time to take a closer look at your calories, net carbs, and portion sizes, including popcorn consumption.
But if you’re a popcorn lover, it’s a sugar-free, gluten-free snack option that can help make your keto lifestyle feel more balanced. Cover with some cheddar cheese or grass-fed butter and sea salt for a high-fat snack.