A new study by the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania shows that popcorn can be an excellent low-calorie, heart-healthy snack that contains a surprising amount of nutrients. With more polyphenols than some fruits and vegetables, popcorn is also a whole grain that is a great source of fiber, with around five grams in just four cups. When prepared without loads of salt and butter, popcorn can be an excellent choice when you are craving a healthy snack alternative to chips, snack mix, or other less healthy options.
Polyphenols have consistently been linked to decreasing the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer, although researchers involved in the study are quick to point out that popcorn is not a replacement for consuming fresh fruits and vegetables. Polyphenols are found in a number of plant foods and can help undo the damage that is done by free radicals in the environment.
“Based on fiber, whole grains, and antioxidant levels, popcorn is the king of snack foods,” stated Joe Vinson, PhD and professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton. “Everyone knows plant foods have antioxidants, but nobody has even looked at what is in popcorn with respect to these compounds.”
It remains unclear exactly how much of the healthy antioxidants in popcorn can be absorbed by the body, and more research is needed to understand which components are really important when it comes to improving health. The study looked at four commercial brands of popcorn, including two microwave and two air-popped varieties, and the antioxidant levels varied between 242 and 363 milligrams per serving. By comparison, most fruits only have around 160 mg of polyphenols per serving.
Around 90 percent of popcorn’s polyphenols are found in the hull, and the reason for the large amounts could lie in the fact that popcorn is not diluted by water like fruit. According to Vinson, prior to popping, popcorn is only around 15 percent water, and after cooking is only around one or two percent moisture.
To get the most from popcorn’s health benefits, steer clear of butter and other heavy oils, and go light on the salt. Also, a recent study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest revealed that movie theatre popcorn has around 1,200 calories and 60 grams of saturated fat, which is a whopping three times the recommended daily intake. Amazingly, this is before you add in the calories and fat that comes from the buttery topping.
Air popped varieties, or ‘naked’ popcorn is the healthiest option, and is made using a hot air popper without oil. At only around 30 calories per cup, it’s tough to beat when it comes to healthy snacking, especially when you consider that the same amount of potato chips has at least 150 calories.
Also, keep in mind that microwave popcorn contains diacetyl to give it a buttery taste, which is a compound that can cause lung disease when inhaled in large quantities. In addition, the bags are typically coated in perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), which have been found to cause cancer in animals and suppress immune function in children.