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Antioxidants In Popcorn: Study Finds Polyphenols In Corn's Kernels

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Could popcorn be good for you?

A new study reveals that the answer is closer to yes than previously thought -- as long as it's not delivered with a robust coating of butter, fake butter, salt or caramel.

Sorry to say, but when popcorn serves as a vehicle for highly palatable, but highly fattening condiments, it's (still) not good for you. But, according to new research, a handful of plain popcorn might be: as part of his presentation at the American Chemical Society meeting on Sunday in San Diego, Joe Vinson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton revealed that the hull that surrounds popping corn is unusually rich in polyphenols -- a type of antioxidant associated with helping to prevent cancer. Antioxidants repair cellular damage caused by "free radicals" -- unstable molecules in our body.

Vinson and his co-investigator, Michael Coco, Jr. tested four different brands of popcorn, grinding up the popped kernels and analyzing them. They found that 90 percent of the polyphenols came from the hull rather than the "white fluffy stuff" and that the overall load was high: 242-363 milligrams per one-ounce serving. (By comparison, fruits like apples and pears often have about 160 milligrams of the antioxidants per ounce.) Overall, about 1.5 percent of popped corn is comprised of polyphenols, according to TIME Healthland.

Polyphenols are found in foods derived from plants, but popcorn may be an especially rich food source because it is minimally processed. While many of the grains we consume are refined, popcorn is not. It is also low in water, which means it simply has a more concentrated antioxidant load than water-heavy fruits and veggies.

Still, fruits and vegetables -- as well as other sources of polyphenols like red wine and dark chocolate -- have other vitamins and minerals that popcorn does not have, making them particularly healthful.

"I don't want people to think they can just eat popcorn to get all the polyphenols they need. I don't want them to think of popcorn as an alternative to fruits and vegetables," Vinson told USA Today. "Just measuring something in the food is easy to do. It creates some information, but the proof in the pudding is what happens in the body."

In fact, the hull, where the polyphenols lie, is comprised of insoluble fiber, which tends to pass right through the body. Without conducting experiments using human subjects, it’s impossible to know how much of the antioxidant we absorb on its way out. Still, the discovery of antioxidants only corroborates evidence that when prepared healthfully (light on the oil and salt), popcorn can be a good-for-you treat.

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