What Are the Benefits of Popcorn?

Popcorn is a rich source of antioxidants.
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If you’re looking for a snack food that’s not only tasty but low-calorie and nutritious as well, popcorn may be just what the doctor ordered. Nutritional research has revealed that popcorn is loaded with antioxidants -- more than almost all fruits and vegetables -- and also provides a healthy helping of dietary fiber, which is critical to maintaining digestive health. To maximize popcorn’s benefits, forego or minimize the added fats and sodium with which it’s often prepared.

Popcorn Study

    Credit for the eye-opening findings about popcorn’s nutritional benefits goes to Joe Vinson, Ph.D., professor of chemistry at Pennsylvania’s University of Scranton. Vinson has devoted much of his career to researching some of the surprising nutritional bonuses that can be found in foods one doesn’t consider particularly healthy. Past subjects of Vinson’s research have included coffee, chocolate and other cocoa-based food products. Vinson presented findings from his study on popcorn’s health benefits at a March 2012 meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Diego.

Loaded With Antioxidants

    The big headline from the announcement of Vinson’s study was the surprisingly high level of antioxidant-rich polyphenols found in popcorn. Polyphenols, one of nature’s biggest suppliers of antioxidant properties, occur naturally in a wide array of plant-based foods. Antioxidants target free radicals, byproducts of your body’s conversion of food into energy and widely implicated as a cause of illness and cell damage. Vinson’s study found that not only did popcorn contain a rich mix of polyphenols, but also that the polyphenols were more concentrated in popcorn than in most other plant-based foods. This, he explained, was due to the relatively low water levels in a kernel of corn, compared with the high water content of most fruits and vegetables.

A Rich Source of Fiber

    The Food and Drug Administration has established the Daily Value, or recommended minimal intake, for dietary fiber at 25 grams, and the Institute of Medicine calls for an even higher intake -- 38 grams daily -- for men. A survey of U.S. trends in dietary fiber intake between 1999 and 2008 showed Americans on average consumed only 16 grams or less a day, considerably less than recommended levels. Registered dietitian Janet Bond Brill, author of “Prevent a Second Heart Attack,” points out that popcorn contains more fiber per ounce than whole-wheat bread or brown rice. Five cups of air-popped popcorn contain 5 to 6 grams of dietary fiber and 40 grams of whole grains.

Low in Calories and Fat

    In addition to being a rich source of antioxidants and dietary fiber, popcorn is also low in calories and fat if it’s prepared properly. A cup of air-popped popcorn contains 31 calories and about one-third of a gram of fat. However, going for butter-drenched, sodium-laden popcorn -- whether at the movies or at home -- will undercut the benefits that this snack offers in its unadorned state. Even the unbuttered popcorn sold at the movies can be sharply higher in calories than equivalent amounts of air-popped popcorn. In an article in “USA Today,” Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that a small unbuttered popcorn at the movies had 650 calories, and a large unbuttered serving had 1,200. Both also contained high levels of fat, reflecting the widespread use of coconut oil to pop movie popcorn.

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