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Popcorn and cereal pack antioxidant punch, says study

By Guy Montague-Jones , 19-Aug-2009
Last updated on 25-Aug-2009 at 13:36 GMT

Certain cereals and salty snacks like popcorn may be healthier than previously thought thanks to their unusually high antioxidant content.

New evidence presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society (ASC) indicates that some snacks and cereals have “surprisingly large” amounts of antioxidants called polyphenols.

Whole grains in cereals, crackers and salty snacks are responsible for the polyphenol content, which is high enough even after baking to rival established antioxidant sources, according to the poster presentation.

“We found that, in fact, whole grain products have comparable antioxidants per gram to fruits and vegetables,” said lead researcher Joe Vinson, a chemist at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

Total content

Explaining the findings, Vinson said the research revealed higher polyphenol levels than previous studies because it looked at the total antioxidant content rather than just focusing on free antioxidants, which are the ones not bound to sugar.

The chemist suggested the discovery helps explain the various health benefits surrounding whole grain products.

“Early researchers thought the fibre was the active ingredient for these benefits in whole grains, the reason why they may reduce the risk of cancer and coronary heart disease. But recently, polyphenols emerged as potentially more important.”

To find out which products have the highest amounts of polyphenols Vinson studied the attributes of different cereals and snacks.

Cereals made with oats were found to have the highest antioxidant content with corn following on in second place and wheat coming third.

Popcorn versus tortilla chips

Meanwhile, in the snack world, wide variation was observed with popcorn heading the list with the highest level of antioxidants. Vinson told Bakery and Snacks that the antioxidant content of popcorn was as much as five times higher than the nearest snack rival.

Generally speaking, whole grain snacks were found to have slightly lower levels of antioxidants than cereals. Processing and baking often reduced significantly the quantity of antioxidants in finished products.

Tortilla chips, for example, came in with ten times less antioxidants than popcorn despite the high corn content. Vinson said alkaline treatment during processing was responsible for bringing down the polyphenol numbers.

Vinson presented the research, which was funded internally at the University of Scranton, at a meeting of the ASC meeting this week. The findings are earmarked for publication in one of the food journals.