Popcorn: Junk Food Turned Health Food?

Research shows popcorn packs more of an antioxidant punch than fruits and vegetables

Bowl of PopcornSnacking gets such a bad rap because it’s often associated with unhealthy junk food like potato chips. But snacking itself is actually not a bad habit, especially if you find a healthy snack food that fills you up and has minimal calories.

You might think that the only ones that fit the bill are fruits or veggies — both of which are delicious and nutritious options, of course. But according to a recent study out of the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, there is another tasty treat that is much more nutritious than most people realize — popcorn.[1]

Researcher Joe Vinson, Ph.D., presented his findings on the health benefits of popcorn at the 243rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society. And what he discovered will change how you view these tasty kernels from now on.

Popcorn Packs a Greater Antioxidant Punch Than Fruits and Veggies

Fruits and vegetables are so good for you for many reasons, one of which is their high antioxidant content. Antioxidants are nutrients that scavenge free radicals — substances that damage cells and play a part in many chronic diseases and conditions like cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and stroke, to name a few. The more fruits and veggies you eat, the more of an antioxidant punch you have against those nasty free radicals.

There are many types of antioxidants, polyphenols being one of the most common. Along with fruits and vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, red wine and green tea contain high amounts of these powerful antioxidants. And now you can add popcorn to that list. In fact, researchers found that popcorn actually has more polyphenols than fruits or vegetables.

What makes popcorn so incredibly rich in polyphenols? Because most fruits and vegetables contain so much water (up to 90 percent), the polyphenols in produce tend to get diluted. On the other hand, since popcorn comprises very little water (only 4 percent), the polyphenol content is much more concentrated.

In fact, by eating one serving of popcorn, you’d be ingesting up to 300 mg of polyphenols, compared to 160 mg for all fruits per serving and 114 mg for a serving of sweet corn, for example.

Researchers also noted that, along with popcorn’s impressive polyphenol content, it just so happens to also be one of the only snack foods out there that is 100 percent unprocessed whole grain. One serving of popcorn can provide 70 percent of your daily intake of whole grains!

Pop Your Own for That Potent Punch

Now, you may be thinking that all that movie theater popcorn you’ve eaten over the years wasn’t so bad for you after all. Au contraire! While it is certainly delicious, movie theater popcorn is loaded with butter, salt, and/or sugar, effectively classifying it as pure junk food.

In order to reap the fantastic antioxidant and fiber benefits of popcorn — and still keep it a low-calorie snack — you have to pop your own popcorn using air, not oil. Popping your own popcorn with oil doubles the calories. This isn’t a bad option if you use extra virgin olive oil or another healthy, monounsaturated oil. But if you are looking for the lowest calorie treat, air is the way to pop.

The next question will inevitably be: What about microwave popcorn? Well, this poses a bit of a dilemma. Most Americans who eat popcorn love the ease and convenience of throwing a bag in the microwave, and two to three minutes later sitting with a hot, fresh bowl of this tasty treat on their lap.

Unfortunately, according to researchers, microwave popcorn contains about 43 percent fat, compared to 28 percent fat in corn you pop in oil by yourself. And let’s not forget about all the not-so-healthy additives in microwave popcorn, like the artificial flavorings, salt, sugar and artificial sweeteners.

Another concern is that microwave popcorn bags are lined with a questionable chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). This chemical has been linked to infertility, as well as cancer in animals. The jury may still be out on the definitive long-term effects of PFOA, but it’s still better to play it safe and pop your popcorn the old-fashioned way.

For added flavor, skip the butter and salt and choose interesting spices and seasonings like dill weed, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, cinnamon or even parmesan cheese. You can also find countless all-natural popcorn seasonings online or in grocery stores.

Now sit back, relax, and enjoy that tasty, guilt-free bowl of homemade popcorn!

[1] The American Chemical Society Office of Public Affairs. (2012). Popcorn: The snack with even higher antioxidant levels than fruits and vegetables. Retrieved from: http://portal.acs.org/.

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