Get your antioxidants with popcorn

April 11, 2012

Popcorn isn't just low in calories and high in fiber; it's chock full of antioxidants, too, reports CNN Health.

Popcorn isn't just low in calories and high in fiber; it's chock full of antioxidants, too, reports CNN Health.

Per serving, plain popcorn contains nearly twice as many polyphenols, which help neutralize free radicals and are thought to protect against heart disease, as the average fruit, according to the preliminary results of a laboratory analysis presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.

"Nobody had paid much attention to popcorn as a source of anything other than fiber," says chemist and lead researcher Joe Vinson, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania, which funded the study. "Popcorn has more antioxidants in total than other snack foods that you can consume, and it also has quite a bit of fiber."

Analyzing four brands of commercially available popcorn the team ground kernels (both popped and unpopped) into a fine powder, separated out the polyphenols by adding a pair of solvents -- a process that roughly mimics what happens in the stomach as food is digested, according to Vinson. They found that a single serving of popcorn -- about two tablespoons of unpopped kernels -- contained up to 300 milligrams of polyphenols. By contrast, the average polyphenol content of fruit is about 160 milligrams per serving, while a single serving of sweet corn contains 114 milligrams. Of course, popcorn should not be smothered in butter, oil and salt.

Some types of polyphenols are pigments, and in fruit the biggest concentrations tend to be found in the skin and seeds. The richest source of polyphenols and fiber are in the hull or outer skin of the corn kernel -- the stuff that gets stuck in your teeth when you're munching away - rather than the white fluffy part.

And even though popcorn should not replace fruit in your diet, the findings suggest that popcorn is a healthy alternative to snacks such as chips and crackers. In addition to the polyphenols and low calorie content, popcorn is 100% whole grain.

According to Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., a spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists and and technical editor for Food Processing, who has studied popcorn, the latest findings confirm other research on the subject, reports USA Today. "Popcorn has an antioxidant called ferulic acid that's also found in beans, corn, rice, wheat, barley and many other grains," she says. "Ferulic acid exhibits a wide range of therapeutic effects against cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular and neuro-degenerative diseases (Alzheimer's) largely because of its strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity."

Still, there's no guarantee that the polyphenols are in the body long enough to have an effect, she says. "It's possible that popcorn goes through the body really fast. If the polyphenols reside largely in the hull, which is principally insoluble fiber and not digested, they are not sitting in our digestive system for an extended period of time, and we may not absorb all the antioxidants," Shelke says. "The hull may be loaded with nutrients that go right through us. The hull acts like a Roto-Rooter."

Shelke says movie popcorn gets a bad name because of the stuff people put on it. "There's nothing wrong with eating popcorn with a little oil or a little butter within a balanced diet," she says. "Popcorn drenched in butter or oil is bad. Sprinkled or sprayed and consumed in moderation is good for both the body and the soul."