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Is popcorn a new superfood?

Move over fruits and vegetables. Popcorn might have more antioxidants and be more capabale of improving the immune system than many items in the produce aisle.

Popcorn has been enjoyed as a snack for centuries. Although its inventor is unknown, popcorn ears have been found in Mexican caves dating back 5,600 years. Peruvian Indians in the 16th century were known to eat popcorn and also use it as a decoration on necklaces and head dresses.

In North America, popcorn is largely associated with going to the movies. According to special collections at the National Agriculture Library, North Americans consume roughly 17.3 billion quarts of popped corn each year. People who enjoy popcorn as a snack may be happy to learn this crunchy food has many health benefits.

According to recent information from researchers at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, popcorn contains more antioxidants than fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants are known to help fight and protect against cancer, heart disease and other ailments.

Although it was previously known that popcorn contained antioxidants known as polyphenols, the exact amounts of the phenols remained a mystery. Joe Vinson, a Ph.D. who presented the popcorn findings at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, found that there are twice as many phenols in popcorn per serving as there is in sweet corn or fruit. This is largely due to the high water content in fresh fruits and vegetables.

Water content in foods can dilute polyphenols by as much as 90 percent, says Vinson's research. Popped corn is very low in water so it has a much higher concentration of polyphenols.

For those who want to add extra nutrient power to popcorn, consider mixing in dried fruits, like raisins and dried cranberries. Along the same premise, the low water content of dried fruits ensures the dried fruits contain more antioxidants than their fresh, juicy counterparts.

Another benefit to popcorn is it is made from an entirely unprocessed whole grain. A serving of popcorn can offer more than 70 percent of the recommended daily value of whole grain in a diet. People may want to skip those enriched cereals and breads and choose low-fat popcorn instead.

Although the findings about the nutritional value of popcorn are promising, this does not mean individuals should give up on fruits and vegetables. Those foods contain other vitamins and nutrients that popcorn does not, such as vitamin C. Also, dousing popcorn with salt and butter negates its nutritional benefits. The best way to enjoy popcorn is to pop it with air and eat it plain. Microwave popcorn is another healthy method of making popcorn, provided it's a no-butter variety. And don't skip the annoying kernels. It appears that the highest concentration of polyphenols are contained in those hard bits that have a tendency to get caught between the teeth.

It has long been known that popcorn is a healthy snack. Now researchers have discovered just how much of an antioxidant powerhouse popcorn can be.