If you're reaching for a salty snack, this is the one you should grab, friends.

By Isadora Baum
May 19, 2021
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Popcorn and pretzels are two common snack foods that can hit the spot when you want something crunchy, salty, and light in texture. And both get a better rap than their less healthy counterparts like greasy potato chips and chocolate chip cookies. But when it comes to this or that, which is the better option as a healthy snack: Popcorn, or pretzels?

Although sharing the distinction of being popular salty snacks, they do have some differences. Nutritional value, serving size consumption, and any additional factors that may come from flavors, seasonings, and other processing effects set popcorn and pretzels apart. What really matters, though, is this:

Which is healthier?

For when your snack cravings strike again, we talked to dietitian Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, to find out which snack you should be, well, snacking on.

The Skinny on Popcorn

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"On its own, popcorn is a single ingredient, very minimally-processed snack and it's a gluten-free whole grain," Jones says,"which at a 3 cup serving offers 4 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber to help promote satiety even when eaten alone."

Want an even more balanced snack that's super healthy, too? Pair popcorn with protein and healthy fats. "When paired with a handful of peanuts or pistachios, or utilized in a trail mix with nuts, seeds, and unsweetened dried fruit, popcorn can be an even more well-balanced, satisfying, and nutrient dense snack," Jones says.

However, some popcorn brands and microwavable options are not the epitome of healthy snacking. "While popcorn can be very nutritious, lots of the microwavable options—as well as movie theater and public event varieties—contain many additives linked to poor health outcomes," Jones says.

Specifically, some additives used in movie theater-type popcorn have been identified as carcinogenic, so those who eat it regularly are at heightened risk of lung disease. Not to worry, though! This doesn't apply to the more generic popcorn brands you'd find at the store, or the kernels you can pop up yourself.

The Skinny on Pretzels

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Most hard pretzels are made with wheat flour, some form of sweetener, oil, salt, and yeast. They're a simple snack loved by many. And, according to Jones, pretzels are "an easy and convenient way to get carbohydrates into snacks and are best paired with sources of fat, fiber, and protein in order to promote satiety."

How do you know which pretzels you should buy? "Ingredient lists will tell you if there are additional additives in store-bought hard pretzels," Jones says, so be diligent when reviewing labels at the grocery to determine what to buy.

If you're opting for the soft Bavarian pretzels from a local restaurant that makes them from scratch, don't worry. Those pretzels are likely to have a minimal amount of processed ingredients, and they pair well with some fat, fiber, or protein to create a satisfying snack.

However, Jones says to be wary of soft pretzels found at ballparks and concession stands. "[Those types] are more likely to contain additives that you might not want to include in your diet on a regular basis." And if the pretzel is one of those massive ones? Be mindful of the portion size—that's a lot of calories and carbs, after all.

Which is Healthier: Popcorn or Pretzels?

The winner by slight advantage: Popcorn! "Either snack can be enjoyed any time of day, but if you only have the option of pretzels or popcorn without other foods to balance out nutrients, I would recommend popcorn for satiety reasons," Jones says.

Just make sure you keep your popcorn preferences simple—don't go with the butter soaked, cheese dusted, or caramel coated varieties if you want to be healthy.

There is an exception wherein pretzels could be considered the better option, though! "The only exception would be right before exercise, in which case either snack is a good way to get energy to fuel muscles and maintain blood sugar levels," Jones says. In that case, the salt from pretzels could be beneficial for providing electrolytes.

So, how do you ensure you're eating the healthiest salty snack? Ideally, make your own popcorn from scratch and season it accordingly, or look for brands that dietitians recommend. "My favorite popcorn brand is Lesser Evil, as they have several flavorful options with ingredients I'm comfortable eating regularly," Jones says. "However, it's also easy to pop your own kernels with an air popper or microwave, and then add some real butter or plant-based butter spread with seasonings."

While Jones gives popcorn the slight edge over pretzels, she also advises sticking to one or two servings—you don't want to eat so much popcorn in one sitting that it defeats the whole purpose of choosing a healthier snack. And make sure to season your popcorn with any flavor combinations that don't add excess calories, sugars, carbs, or unhealthy fats.

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