Is popcorn the perfect snack food? A new popcorn study has found that popcorn packs more antioxidants than fruits or vegetables. But how healthy popcorn is depends on how it’s prepared and it’s not a viable substitute for fruits and vegetables.
Polyphenols and free radicals
Popcorn can be a healthy, low-calorie snack food rich in fiber if you avoid slathering it in butter and salt and now its been identified as a rich source of antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds that offset the damaging effects of unstable molecules called “free radicals.” Free radicals are by-products of cell metabolism known to be a principal cause of aging and disease.
At a presentation in San Diego March 25, Joe Vinson, Ph.D., a researcher who has made a name for himself by identifying healthy aspects in everyday foods such as chocolate and nuts, explained his latest findings on popcorn. He reported that popcorn is rich in plant-based antioxidants called “polyphenols” at higher concentrations than fruits and vegetables.
Vinson and his team analyzed four commercial brands of popcorn: two air-popped and two microwave varieties. They ground up popped samples and measured the polyphenol levels. Popcorn delivered up to 300 milligrams of polyphenols a serving, compared to sweet corn at 114 mg a serving. All the fruits analyzed had an average of 160 mg per serving.
One serving of popcorn, about an ounce in Vinson’s study, delivers 13 percent of the daily intake of polyphenols in the average U.S. diet. Fruits provide 255 mg of polyphenols per day of and vegetables provide 218 mg per day. According to Vinson, Popcorn had higher concentrations of polyphenols because it averages about 4 percent water. Polyphenols are diluted in fruits and vegetables, which can be up to 90 percent water.
Whole grain source of fiber
The researchers also found that the hulls of popcorn—the crunchy part that gets stuck between your teeth, have the highest concentration of polyphenols, as well as fiber. Vinson pointed out that popcorn is 100 percent unprocessed whole grain, compared to whole grain cereals, which only have to be 51 percent whole grain to earn that on the label. The average American only gets about half the recommended daily intake of whole grain. A single serving of popcorn in Vinson’s study provides more than 70 percent of recommended whole grain intake.
Airpopped vs. microwaved
Popcorn may be full of polyphenols and fiber, but the unhealthy ingredients in microwave and movie popcorn cancel out any positive health benefits. Air-popped popcorn is best, due to its lack of salt, butter or oil and a 4-cup serving is only 120-130 calories.
According to Vinson, popcorn popped in a pot with oil is about 28 percent fat with twice the calories as air-popped. Microwave popcorn is about 43 percent fat. Plus, the artificial butter flavoring in most microwave popcorn also contains diacetyl and related compounds research has linked to lung disease.
Microwave popcorn bags are also lined with chemicals such as perfluorooctanioic acid (PFOA), which as been linked to liver, testicular and pancreatic cancer in animals. PFOA may also lead to fertility problems and prevent vaccinations from working properly in children. During microwaving, the PFOA vaporizes into the popcorn and ends up in your bloodstream.
Keep it healthy
Popcorn doesn’t have the crucial vitamins and nutrients you need to stay healthy that are found in fruits and vegetables. But it is a great snack choice. Keep it healthy by skipping the butter and salt. Use spices instead, like cinnamon, cayenne pepper, mustard powder, or even hot sauce.