In addition to the finding that cold, oat-based cereals provide the best source of morning milk-bowl-spoon-based antioxidants, the researchers found that popcorn provides more of the dietary fiber and antioxidants than any other snack food, according to findings presented at the meeting of the American Chemical Society.
"It's a whole grain, people don't think of it that way but it is," said Keith-Thomas Ayoob, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York in response to the study's findings. "It's a different form of corn, but it's definitely a whole grain."
Joe Vinson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and the study's lead author, said there are a number of reasons for popcorn's nutritional value.
"The more processed the grain is, you're losing nutrients and antioxidants," he said. "The closer you can get to the plant, the better off you are."
In the case of popcorn, he explained, the antioxidants are protected from the sun in the drying process, and the corn loses only a little bit of them when it is popped. Additionally, through the whole process, the fiber provided by the whole grain is not removed.
"If you can air-pop your popcorn and then add a minimal amount of salt, you'd have the best popcorn," Vinson said.
But while popcorn may have the potential to be a healthy addition to the diet, there are some obstacles.
"Eating plain popcorn is like eating cardboard, and therein lies the problem," said Andrew F. Smith, author of "Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America."
While popcorn could be healthy, he said, "It isn't, because most of us, including myself, love salt, love butter, and love everything else about it. Most people don't make it right."
While he doesn't feel popcorn presents a healthy snack option, Smith expressed disappointment that popcorn manufacturers haven't created a healthy, yet tasty version of their snack.
"They haven't done so. I wish they could. I like popcorn," he said.
Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine, confirmed Smith's sentiments.
"The real issue with popcorn is what gets added to it, and frankly that's often an issue with foods in the modern food supply," he said. "If you add a lot of butter and salt to popcorn, it merely becomes the delivery vehicle for a lot of bad stuff."
"Whole grains are what you want to get from a snack or a cereal, so you're looking for whole grains as the first ingredient," Vinson said.
He noted, however, that the advisory doesn't tend to match the reality on store shelves.
"We do consume what the government wants in terms of the amount of grains, but we're only consuming a third of them as whole grains," said Vinson.
He noted that of the grains people consume, at least half -- and ideally all -- should be whole grains. But for a product to be labeled "whole grain," he said, a simple majority of the grains it contains need to be whole, not all of them.
When it comes to the nutrients themselves, he said, "They are somewhat removed when you refine grain."