Quick quiz: What’s the healthiest snack?
A. an apple
B. an orange
C. a bowl of popcorn

Well, they’re all good for you, of course. But if you answered C, you just may be correct.

At a recent meeting of food scientists in San Diego, Joe Vinson, Ph.D., a pioneer in analyzing healthful components in chocolate, nuts and other common foods, reported that popcorn contains more of the healthful antioxidant substances called "polyphenols" than fruits and vegetables.

It turns out that polyphenols are more concentrated in popcorn, which averages only about 4 percent water, while polyphenols are diluted in the 90 percent water that makes up many fruits and vegetables.

In another surprising finding, the researchers discovered that the hulls of the popcorn -- the part that everyone hates for its tendency to get caught in the teeth -- actually has the highest concentration of polyphenols and fiber.

"Those hulls deserve more respect," said Vinson, who is with the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. "They are nutritional gold nuggets."

Unfortunately, popcorn has suffered the fate of many other healthful foods in our modern era of overprocessing. These days, many of us reach for prepackaged microwave popcorn, which is a nutritional no-no. Microwave popcorn has twice as many calories as air-popped -- about 43 percent of microwave popcorn is fat, compared to 28 percent if you pop the corn in oil yourself.

And don’t even think about slathering butter and salt on top … or even worse, going for the sugar-salt-and-fat concoction marketed as “kettle corn.”

(Note to self: Anything sold as fast food on carnival midways is worth avoiding from a health perspective.)

His research led Dr. Vinson to declare, "Popcorn may be the perfect snack food. It's the only snack that is 100 percent unprocessed whole grain.”

One serving of popcorn will provide more than 70 percent of the daily intake of whole grain. The average person only gets about half a serving of whole grains a day, and popcorn could be a delicious way to fill that requirement.

As good as popcorn is, to be fair, it’s probably not a good idea to compare it to fruit when it comes to healthy snacking. Why should it be an either-or, when both whole grains AND fruits are part of a balanced diet? Indeed, Dr. Vinson pointed out that fruits and vegetables contain vitamins and other nutrients that are critical for good health, but are missing from popcorn.

Experiment with herbs, spices and grated cheeses to come up with your favorite popcorn seasonings. Italian, Mexican, Cajun, Curry, Sweet Chili, Ranch Style, Pesto, Barbecue … look in the seasonings aisle of your supermarket for ideas, or go online for recipes. Nutrition bonus: Spices like turmeric, black pepper and cinnamon will add an antioxidant boost to your popcorn!

You can also try seasoned oils for popping your corn at home. Remember that a little goes a long way.

Here are some great ways to jazz up your popcorn:

  1. Flavored cooking spray – there are a variety of flavors such as butter, olive oil, and even garlic.
  2. Cinnamon – spray your popcorn with a little cooking spray first (butter flavored is most people’s preference) and then sprinkle a little cinnamon.
  3. Red pepper flakes – if you enjoy a bit of heat!
  4. Saute some garlic in olive oil and then add it to your popcorn, and if you like, add some grated parmesan cheese and a little salt and pepper.
  5. Taco seasoning – again, a little cooking spray will help it to stick.
  6. Sprinkle on a little hot sauce or soy sauce.

What is your favorite seasoning/topping for a healthy popcorn treat?


Science Daily, March 25, 2012