The point that didn’t quite ‘pop’ in the good news on popcorn

Posted by
March 29, 2012

Dr. Vinson in his lab. Photo: Terry Connors

So how did popcorn become a hot and trending news item this week?

The short answer is: a student doing his thesis, a re-popped study, and a clever, if not entirely accurate spin from the press office of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Headline writers and news anchors from around the country picked up the ‘happy news’ that “popcorn has more antioxidants than fruits and vegetables,” a take the study’s head researcher, Joe Vinson, PhD, said in a phone interview I had with him yesterday was “a false lead to go on.”

“They kind of played up the fruits and vegetables versus popcorn…there are different kinds of antioxidants,” Vinson contended.

Make no mistake, Dr. Vinson is hot on popcorn, but from a slightly different perspective. “It’s a perfect snack in my opinion..it’s high in fiber, low in fat, low in calories and high in antioxidants,” he said, adding “it’s a different kind of food, and I’m thinking of it as a snack, not a replacement for these other nutrient-rich foods.”

But the ACS press office did its job well, and by Tuesday, when I spoke with Dr. Vinson, he had been contacted by Time, USA Today and other big news names, was featured at an ACS press conference, and was also up to date on how the topic was trending on Google.

Don’t dispense with the fruits and veggies just yet

Dr. Vinson’s study, done at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and presented at a meeting of the ACS, was a second-popping of a 2009 one (also presented at an ACS meeting) that both Vinson and chemistry student Michael G. Coco conducted.

The new research, which is “more precise,” according to Vinson and “an improvement over the old” separated the hull from the “white fluffy part,” which was the idea of Coco, who is doing his thesis on the subject.

The popcorn hulls (“the part that sticks in your teeth”), they discovered, are where the antioxidants are hiding, but whether popcorn munchers are getting the benefits of these compounds, and if so, how much, remains to be seen.  “We hope that the antioxidants will play a part in the benefits that you get from eating popcorn…and if they are bio-available, that’s our next step,” said Vinson.

The study did a sort of ‘digestion simulation’ in the laboratory, but how that may differ in a person, Vinson hopes to find out. “We did our own digestion (research)  that doesn’t use enzymes, and you as a human being have enzymes and different pH changes to digest food,” he said.

When popcorn isn’t good for you

While Vinson and Coco found no difference in the measured antioxidant levels in air-popped versus microwaved popcorn, the latter zapped version was recently hot news itself on the Internet starting with an article in Prevention titled “7 food that should never cross your lips.

The problem with microwaved popcorn, according to Olga Naidenko, PhD, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, comes not from the popcorn but from the lining of the microwave bags which contain the chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

PFOA is part of a class of nasty compounds linked to numerous diseases in animal testing. The chemical is vaporized during cooking and can migrate into the popcorn. “They stay in your body for years and accumulate there,” Naidenko says.

Manufacturers are said to be  phasing out PFOA by 2015, but between now and then, there will be a lot of microwaved popcorn consumed – although according to Dr. Vinson, air popping is the preferable method.

So if you like popcorn, eat away — it may turn out to have great health benefits besides its established whole grain content, But just stay away from the microwaved kinds and the MSG-added store varieties.

Popcorn, according to Dr. Vinson, is “better than any snack out there.” Better than things like corn chips, potato chips, nacho chips,  which are “all higher in fat, higher in calories and much lower in fiber.”

But certainly not something that should be substituting for your daily quota of fruits and veggies.