Want a healthy snack? Try a bag of air-popped popcorn, which has more antioxidants than many fruits and vegetables, according to a new study. Just skip the salt, oils, butter and other additives that turn it into a less healthful alternative.

The new study was conducted by Joe Vinson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton whose previous work more than a decade ago identified some of the health benefits of chocolate. Vinson's popcorn research was announced at a meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) on March 25.

According to Vinson's research, popcorn is heavy in antioxidants called polyphenols. Since popcorn is only about 4 percent water — compared to 90 percent for many fruits and vegetables — the polyphenols are present in greater concentrations in popcorn. The same principle works for dried fruits, which also contain less water.

"Popcorn may be the perfect snack food," Vinson said in a prepared release. "It's the only snack that is 100 percent unprocessed whole grain. All other grains are processed and diluted with other ingredients, and although cereals are called 'whole grain,' this simply means that over 51 percent of the weight of the product is whole grain. One serving of popcorn will provide more than 70 percent of the daily intake of whole grain. The average person only gets about half a serving of whole grains a day, and popcorn could fill that gap in a very pleasant way."

The combination of fiber, whole grains and antioxidants makes popcorn "the king of snack foods," Vinson told WebMD.

Vinson's study, which has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal and was partially funded by the Weaver Popcorn Company, says that popcorn contained up to 300 milligrams (mg) of polyphenols per serving, compared to the 114 mg contained in a serving of sweet corn and 160 mg per serving for all other fruits. According to the ACS, the average U.S. daily diet gets 255 mg of polyphenols from fruits and 218 mg from vegetables.

Popped with air

The way you prepare popcorn makes a difference. "Air-popped popcorn has the lowest number of calories, of course," Vinson said. "Microwave popcorn has twice as many calories as air-popped, and if you pop your own with oil, this has twice as many calories as air-popped popcorn. About 43 percent of microwave popcorn is fat, compared to 28 percent if you pop the corn in oil yourself." Add oil, salt and sugar and popcorn becomes "a nutritional nightmare."

Meanwhile, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest's director of nutrition, Bonnie Liebman, points out, the jury is still out on whether polyphenols have a potent potential for human health. She also warns that a large tub of movie popcorn packs as much as 1,200 calories. "Considering that two out of three American adults and one out of three children are overweight or obese, the best advice is to snack on fresh fruit or vegetables and to ignore the snack counter at the movies," she told USA Today.

"Today" show nutrition expert Joy Bauer also warns that most microwave popcorn bags currently contain chemicals called PFCs (perfluorinated compounds) "that have been shown to suppress immune function in children and cause cancer in animals." But she also says that "most manufacturers are working on phasing out use of this chemical." She also provides a few healthy ways to spice up popcorn, including lightly sprinkling kernels with Parmesan cheese and black pepper or a dash of chili powder.

Popcorn may be healthier than some fruits and vegetables
Chemistry professor says popcorn packs a unique antioxidant punch.