What happens when you take a healthy whole grain, like popcorn, and then you add cheese, caramel, or other toppings? Is it still healthy, or not? Today, let’s answer that question by taking an in-depth look at Smartfood popcorn.
Smartfood popcorn has at least 8g of whole grain popcorn per serving. However, compared to regular popcorn, Smartfood has added cheese and seasoning ingredients that add considerable saturated fat, sodium, sugar, and calories. Therefore, most flavors of Smartfood popcorn are not very healthy.
Below, I’ll discuss whether Smartfood popcorn counts as “processed food,” whether it’s good for weight loss, and how it compares to Skinny Pop and Doritos. Then I’ll end with a tip on how to make the healthiest popcorn possible at home (it saves money, too).
Is Smartfood Popcorn Bad for You?
Here are the 12 questions I’ll be answering about Smartfood popcorn nutrition. Click any of them to skip ahead to that section—or just keep scrolling to read them all:
- What Are the Ingredients in Smartfood Popcorn?
- Does Smartfood Popcorn Have Sugar?
- Is Smartfood Popcorn Good for Weight Loss?
- Is Smartfood Popcorn High in Sodium?
- Is Smartfood Popcorn Low Fat?
- Is Smartfood Popcorn Processed?
- Is Smartfood Popcorn a Whole Grain?
- Is Smartfood Popcorn Healthier Than Skinny Pop?
- Is Smartfood Popcorn Healthier Than Chips?
- Are the Artificial Colors in Flamin’ Smartfood Popcorn Safe?
- What Is a Healthier Alternative to Smartfood Popcorn?
- Is Smartfood Popcorn Vegan?
1. What Are the Ingredients in Smartfood Popcorn?
Let’s start by looking at some actual Smartfood ingredients. We’ll look at 3 popular flavors. I’ll share my takeaway points below the table:
|White Cheddar||Popcorn, Vegetable Oil (Corn, Canola, and/or Sunflower Oil), Cheddar Cheese (Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Whey, Buttermilk, Natural Flavor, and Salt.|
|Sea Salt||Popcorn, Vegetable Oil, (Corn, Canola, and/or Sunflower Oil), and Sea Salt.|
|Flamin’ Hot White Cheddar||Popcorn, Vegetable Oil (Corn, Canola, and/or Sunflower Oil), Maltodextrin (Made from Corn), Buttermilk, Cheddar Cheese (Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Whey, Natural Flavors, Salt, Romano Cheese (Cow’s Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Potassium Chloride, Artificial Color (Red 40 Lake, Yellow 6 Lake, Yellow 6, Yellow 5), Yeast Extract, Citric Acid, Lactose, Whey Protein Concentrate, and Sodium Caseinate.|
Here’s what I notice about these ingredients:
- Smartfood popcorn contains whole grain (popcorn). Most people don’t think of popcorn when they hear “whole grain,” but it actually is. And indeed, Smartfood popcorn has a few grams of fiber per serving, which is better than a lot of flour-based snacks. More on this below.
- Smartfood popcorn has processed vegetable oil. Specifically, it has “corn, canola, and/or sunflower oil.” These highly processed oils add empty calories and aren’t the best for long-term health or weight management.
- Most Smartfood popcorn flavors have added sugar. Sugar adds extra calories and may cause blood-sugar spikes. We’ll look closer at the sugar content of Smartfood popcorn below.
- Most Smartfood popcorn flavors have dairy products. This isn’t a negative for everyone—but if you’re lactose intolerant, vegan, or otherwise dairy-free, then beware. (Note: The Sea Salt flavor is dairy-free.)
- Smartfood Flamin’ White Cheddar popcorn has artificial colors. Specifically, it has Red 40 Lake, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Yellow 6 Lake. These artificial colors can cause hyperactivity in some children, and they may increase cancer risk. See below for more detail.
As you can see, Smartfood popcorn is based around a healthy whole grain (popcorn)—but several unhealthy ingredients are added. The Sea Salt flavor looks healthiest, as it avoids the sugar and artificial colors of some other flavors.
In the next section, let’s look at exactly how much sugar is in Smartfood popcorn.
- What kind of popcorn does Smartfood use? Smartfood uses air-popped popcorn, with oil and other ingredients added.
- Is there MSG in Smartfood popcorn? Smartfood popcorn does not have monosodium glutamate (MSG).
2. Does Smartfood Popcorn Have Sugar?
Two flavors of Smartfood popcorn are sugar free: Sea Salt and Movie Theater Butter. All other flavors have added sugar. The flavor with the most sugar is Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn, with 12g of sugar per serving. That is nearly as much sugar as a serving of Oreo cookies.
For me personally, avoiding sugar is a big priority because I realized that sugar makes my acne worse. But of course, there are many reasons to reduce or avoid sugar completely.
The American Heart Association recommends a limit of 25g of sugar per day for women and 36g per day for men. But no added sugar is needed for human health.
Here is a table showing the sugar per serving for each flavor of Smartfood popcorn:
|Flavor||Serving Size||Total Sugar|
|White Cheddar||2.5 cups (28g)||2g|
|Sea Salt||3.75 cups (28g)||0g|
|Flamin’ Hot White Cheddar||2.5 cups (28g)||1g|
|Caramel & Cheddar Mix||1.5 cups (28g)||6g|
|Movie Theater Butter||3 cups (28g)||0g|
|Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn||1.5 cups (28g)||12g|
As you can see, the Kettle Corn flavor has dramatically more sugar than any other flavor. But the Caramel & Cheddar flavor is also pretty sugary. Notice that these flavors also have a smaller “serving size,” so you’re getting all that sugar even if you eat a small serving.
Also, keep in mind: All the carbs in Smartfood popcorn are fairly quick-digesting carbs, as popcorn is a puffed grain. This means all flavors may spike blood-sugar levels to some degree, despite not having sugar. (Learn more in “Whole Grain Hierarchy.”)
- Does Smartfood popcorn have a lot of carbs? Smartfood popcorn has between 13g and 20g of total carbs per serving. Smartfood popcorn is not low-carb or keto friendly.
3. Is Smartfood Popcorn Good for Weight Loss?
Smartfood popcorn is not the best food for weight loss, as it has multiple high-calorie ingredients like vegetable oil and cheese. The somewhat high sodium content of Smartfood popcorn also makes it tempting to overeat. However, it can potentially be eaten in moderation on a weight loss diet.
One of the most important principles for weight loss is calorie density. Foods with low calorie density fill up your stomach with few calories. This makes it easier to eat fewer calories and be satisfied. In contrast, high calorie density foods can be easier to overeat. (source)
Well, one of the foods with the highest calorie density is vegetable oil. Refined sugar and animal products (like cheese) have a high calorie density, too. Smartfood popcorn has several such ingredients, so there is a risk of overeating them.
So, can Smartfood popcorn make you fat? Yes, it could potentially contribute to weight gain. But by itself, a few servings of Smartfood popcorn will not ruin your weight loss diet, either. Weight loss depends on your overall diet and lifestyle.
If you’re burning more calories than you’re eating each day/week, you should lose weight. Eating Smartfood popcorn or other “processed foods” on occasion will not automatically ruin your diet, as long as your overall calorie deficit is in tact.
For more help with weight loss, check out this post with 18 tips for weight loss without counting calories.
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4. Is Smartfood Popcorn High in Sodium?
Smartfood Popcorn has between 110mg and 240mg of sodium per serving, depending on the flavor. I would consider this moderate in sodium. The two flavors with the most sodium are White Cheddar and Movie Theater Butter.
Here is a table showing the amount of sodium per serving:
|White Cheddar||2.5 cups (28g)||240mg|
|Sea Salt||3.75 cups (28g)||150mg|
|Flamin’ Hot White Cheddar||2.5 cups (28g)||200mg|
|Caramel & Cheddar Mix||1.5 cups (28g)||150mg|
|Movie Theater Butter||3 cups (28g)||240mg|
|Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn||1.5 cups (28g)||110mg|
Eating too much sodium increases your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. So, be mindful of how your sodium content can add up while eating many servings of snacks.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting your sodium intake to 2,300mg per day, which is about 10 to 20 servings of Smartfood popcorn, depending on the flavor. However, the AHA is “moving toward an ideal limit” of 1,500mg per day, which is about 6 to 13 servings of Smartfood popcorn.
If you want a lower-sodium popcorn that is still salty, check out Skinny Pop. It only has 75mg of sodium per serving. That’s considerably lower than any Smartfood flavor.
5. Is Smartfood Popcorn Low Fat?
Smartfood Popcorn is not low fat. The White Cheddar flavor has 10 grams of fat in each serving. This means about 60% of the calories are from fat. Almost all of the fat is from vegetable oil, so it is mostly polyunsaturated fat.
Here’s a table showing the fat content of each of the Smartfood popcorn flavors:
|Flavor||Serving Size||Total Fat|
|White Cheddar||2.5 cups (28 g)||10 g|
|Flamin Hot White Cheddar||2.5 cups (28 g)||10 g|
|Caramel and Cheddar Mix||1.5 cups (28 g)||8 g|
|Movie Theater Buttered||3 cups (28 g)||9 g|
|Sweet and Salty Kettle Corn||1.5 cups (28 g)||6 g|
6. Is Smartfood Popcorn Processed?
Smartfood popcorn contains processed vegetable oil (corn, canola, and/or sunflower oil), and most flavors also have some processed sugar. In fact, around half of the calories come from oil. This makes it a processed food, despite containing a whole grain (popcorn).
First, let’s clarify what “processed” really means in practical terms. Technically, cutting a piece of fruit in half could be called “processing,” but that has no real impact on nutritional value. So that’s not what we really mean by “processed food.”
Also, the number of ingredients should not determine how “processed” a food is. Think about it this way: Cotton candy is often just sugar, artificial flavor, and artificial color—just 3 ingredients! But is cotton candy processed food? Of course it is.
I prefer using a description from Dr. Michael Greger in his book How Not to Die. Dr. Greger describes his ideal “Green Light” foods as “foods of plant origin to which nothing bad has been added and from which nothing good has been taken away.”
To me, when you ask whether Smartfood Popcorn is “processed,” you’re really asking whether anything bad has been added to the original plant ingredients, or whether anything good has been taken away from them.
And vegetable oil is an ingredient that is definitely processed by this definition. It comes from seeds or vegetables. The seeds are pressed to extract their oil, and then the fiber (a good, healthy part) is removed.
In some cases, hexane is also used to extract more oil from the seeds. The hexane is removed in a later step, but there are small amounts of hexane that often remain in the final product. Some people worry about these residues.
So, I would count Smartfood popcorn as processed food. That doesn’t mean it’s as bad as Twinkies—but it’s processed. And for the same reason, I would also say Smartfood popcorn doesn’t count as “clean eating” in the strictest sense.
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7. Is Smartfood Popcorn a Whole Grain?
Popcorn is a whole grain, so Smartfood popcorn does contain whole grain. However, Smartfood Popcorn itself is not a “whole food,” as it also has processed vegetable oil and sugar along with the popcorn.
In fact, around half of the calories in Smartfood popcorn come from the processed oil. So in that sense, it’s quite processed—despite containing a whole grain.
Also, keep in mind: Popcorn is a puffed grain. This is one of the less-healthy kinds of whole grains, relatively speaking. That’s because puffed grains are digested much more quickly than in-tact grains. They spike our blood-sugar levels more.
Many people will do just fine with puffed whole grains, but they shouldn’t be considered equally as healthy as in-tact whole grains. (Learn more in this video: “Whole Grain Hierarchy.”)
- Is Smartfood popcorn high in fiber? With 1g to 3g of fiber per serving, Smartfood popcorn does have fiber. That said, it’s not nearly as “high in fiber” as beans, for example, with around 7g of fiber per serving—or Fiber One cereal with 14g of fiber per serving. Smartfood popcorn is a moderate source of fiber.
8. Is Smartfood Popcorn Healthier Than Skinny Pop?
Smartfood Popcorn is not healthier than Skinny Pop. If anything, Skinny Pop is healthier.
To see why, let’s first take a look at the nutrition facts for Skinny Pop vs Smartfood. We’ll start by comparing the White Cheddar flavor of Smartfood to the Original flavor of Skinny Pop, since those seem to be the most popular flavors for each brand:
|Nutrition Facts||Smartfood Popcorn (White Cheddar)||Skinny Pop|
|Serving Size||2 1/2 cups (28g)||3 3/4 cups (28g)|
As you can see, Smartfood White Cheddar has more calories, more saturated fat, more sodium, more sugar, and less fiber per serving. It’s worse in almost every way.
The only area where the Smartfood popcorn is arguably better is that it has more protein than Skinny Pop. Generally, Smartfood White Cheddar is less healthy than Skinny Pop because it has added milk ingredients that add extra fat and calories.
You could argue that it’s not fair to compare a White Cheddar flavor to an “Original” flavor. So let’s address that.
If you compare the Sea Salt flavor of Smartfood to Skinny Pop, it’s a closer comparison. They are both just popcorn, vegetable oil, and salt. And yet, the Smartfood popcorn still has 2x more sodium than Skinny Pop. So again, Skippy Pop seems healthier.
- Is Smartfood Popcorn healthier than regular popcorn? No—if anything, Smartfood popcorn is less healthy than regular popcorn. The cheese and seasoning ingredients add extra fat, sugar, and calories to most flavors of Smartfood popcorn.
9. Is Smartfood Popcorn Healthier Than Chips?
Now, let’s take a look at the nutrition facts for Doritos vs Smartfood popcorn:
|Nutrition Facts||Smartfood Popcorn (White Cheddar)||Doritos (Nacho Cheese)|
|Serving Size||2 1/2 cups (28g)||12 chips (28g)|
Smartfood is a little bit “worse” than Doritos by most measurements. Smartfood has more calories, more saturated fat, more sodium, and more sugar than Doritos.
There are a couple areas where Smartfood does look a bit healthier than Doritos—namely, fiber and protein. But Doritos are not really healthy. So the fact that Smartfood popcorn may be slightly healthier than Doritos in some specific ways… is still not very encouraging.
10. Are the Artificial Colors in Flamin’ Smartfood Popcorn Safe?
Smartfood Flamin’ White Cheddar popcorn contains artificial colors Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Yellow 6 Lake, and Red 40 Lake. Research suggests these artificial colors cause hyperactivity and behavioral issues in some children. There are also concerns around possible carcinogens in these artificial colors.
Some research has suggested that as little as 50 mg per day of artificial food colorings could cause behavioral changes in children.
In 2004, researchers from Harvard and Columbia University estimated that removing artificial food coloring from the diets of children with ADHD would be about one-third or one-half as effective as treating them with Ritalin.
There may also be cancer risks from some of these artificial colors, but the evidence is not very solid:
- Yellow 5: A 2015 study found that Yellow 5 caused DNA damage in human white blood cells that it was exposed to. It is possible that this DNA damage could lead to tumor formation if it were to happen in amounts that could not be repaired.
- Yellow 6: Yellow 6 often contains known carcinogenic contaminants, including benzidine and 4-amino-biphenyl. These contaminants have only been documented at low levels where it shouldn’t be cause for concern, however. There were also animal trials where Yellow 6 resulted in kidney/adrenal tumors—but this result is disputed. (source, source)
- Red 40: Red 40 has small amounts of benzidene, which is a known carcinogen. It’s legally allowed because the amount is small enough to have no presumed effect. The EU requires foods with Red 40 to bear a warning saying it “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”
All of these artificial colors are still being tested on animals to determine their safety. The most established problem is hyperactivity in kids. Some governments have taken steps to add warnings or ban some of these dyes.
11. What Is a Healthier Alternative to Smartfood Popcorn?
As discussed above, popcorn itself is a whole grain. It has fiber, and the popcorn itself has a pretty low calorie density. But it’s the oil, butter, excess salt, cheese, chocolate, or other such ingredients that can make popcorn snacks like Smartfood unhealthy.
Even when most people make popcorn at home, they use cooking oil that dramatically raises the caloric density. This home-popped popcorn is not the worst food for you—it’s moderately healthy—but it’s not the best you can do, either.
The healthiest popcorn is air-popped—using an air popper like this one, or a microwave bowl like this.
When you air-pop your popcorn without oil, the caloric density goes way down. You can eat a huge bowl of air-popped popcorn, and it still won’t be many calories.
Granted, oil-free air-popped popcorn doesn’t taste as rich as oily or buttery popcorn. It can also take some extra effort to get the salt to stick on the popcorn kernels properly. But there are guides online to help with all of this.
If you don’t like oil-free popcorn, then at least pick your oil consciously. Avocado oil or extra-virgin olive oil are the ones I’d recommend. I explain why in my big post about oil.
You can also consider adding nutritional yeast to your popcorn. It provides some extra protein and vitamins, along with a cheesy, nutty taste.
12. Is Smartfood Popcorn Vegan?
Smartfood Popcorn has two vegan flavors: Sea Salt and Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn. The other flavors are not vegan, as they all contain milk ingredients.
The dairy ingredients in Smartfood popcorn can include:
- Cheddar Cheese
- Romano Cheese
- Parmesan Cheese
- Skim Milk
- Whey Protein Concentrade
- Sodium Caseinate
So many dairy ingredients! But luckily, there are still those two dairy-free flavors—Sea Salt and Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn—for those of us who want them.
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