Popcorn a Hidden Source of Antioxidants, Study Says

Do popcorn's health claims contain a kernel of truth?

August 18, 2009, 4:06 PM

Aug. 19, 2009— -- Popcorn, the movie-accompanying favorite snack, can also be a good source of fiber and antioxidants, says a new study presented Tuesday.

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."

Problems in the Food Chain

"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."

A similar problem to that of popcorn happens in tortilla chips.

"Tortilla chips, which are becoming very popular, that's made with whole grain corn but it's alkali-processed, so it destroys a lot of the antioxidants," Vinson said.

Katz expressed some optimism that popcorn could be made to fit those standards.

"Like most other whole grains, it's an excellent source of fiber, and fiber is typically deficient in the average American diet," he said. "Essentially what you're looking for ... is either just popcorn that you can then lightly salt, or popcorn where the only additions to it are other healthy items. Some of the microwave popcorn has minimal additives to it. Lightly salted is fine."

Katz said that a little olive or canola oil could also be added for taste.

Taking Back Snack Time

"One of the nice things about popcorn is that it's a 'fun food,'" said Katz, noting that it presents an enjoyable food that can also provide nutrition.

But both he and Ayoob noted that fruit -- when served in a form where it is presented as finger food -- can provide a healthier option.

"Any fresh fruit is going to trump most other things," Ayoob said. "In the time it takes you to pop the popcorn in the microwave, you could also cut up some fruit instead."

Ayoob noted that popcorn could also be used as a healthier snack because of its volume rather than just any nutrition it might provide.

"It's one of those snacks that's filling, and since it's light ... it's going to take you a little longer to plow through seven and a half cups of popcorn," he explained, referring to the volume provided by a bag of microwave popcorn from his desk.

"It's got more fiber than most other snacks, and it's going to take longer to eat. The time factor means you're going to get full," Ayoob said. "In the same time, you could consume a lot more calories in chips."

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