It is not often that a snack food gets the health vote, but it would seem that in a US study heralded as "the first of its kind", researchers found that popcorn and other whole grain cereals, including several popular commercial breakfast cereals, contain "surprisingly large" amounts of polyphenol, a type of antioxidant linked to lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and other diseases.

These were the findings of a study led by Dr Joe Vinson, a chemist at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, which also funded the research. The study is being presented this week at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Washington DC.

Polyphenols remove free radicals (chemicals that can damage cells and tissue) from the body.

They are present in fruits, vegetables and other foods like chocolate, wine, coffee and tea, but while these foods have all been widely researched, no one until now knew that commercial hot and cold whole grain cereals, already counted as "healthy" because of their fiber content, were also a rich dietary source of the antioxidants.

Over two thirds of the American diet comprises breakfast cereals, pasta, crackers and salty snacks, said the researchers.

Vinson told the press that everyone was under the impression, because of early research, that the main health value of whole grains was the fiber, and that this was the active ingredient that also accounted for their link with reduced risk of cancer and heart disease.

But what he and his colleagues found was that whole grain foods have similar levels of antioxidants per gram as fruits and vegetables.

"This is the first study to examine total phenol antioxidants in breakfast cereals and snacks, whereas previous studies have measured free antioxidants in the products," explained Vinson.

Cereals made from whole grains of wheat, corn, oats, and rice (in that order) have the most antioxidants, said Vinson, adding that raisin bran has the highest amount per serving because raisins also contain high levels of polyphenols.

Vinson and colleagues also found that while whole grain snacks have slightly lower levels of antioxidants than cereals, of the snacks, popcorn has the highest level.

It makes a change for popcorn to hit the headlines because of its healthful properties.

Over the last few years it has been dogged by two issues: one surrounding an additive used in the manufacture of microwave popcorn, and the other is the debate about whether, along with nuts and corn, it causes diverticular complications.

In 2007, ConAgra, the largest microwave popcorn supplier in the world, decided to drop diacetyl, a flavoring it added to its microwave popcorn, as doctors had suggested there may be a raised risk of developing bronchiolitis obliterans, a type of lung disease.

And a large prospective study of men reported in the August 27, 2008 issue of JAMA, found no evidence to support a common recommendation that patients should avoid eating popcorn, nuts and corn to prevent diverticular complications.

Sources: American Chemical Society.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD