Popcorn and raisins – the good news snacks

Lesley Dobson / 03 April 2012

It’s time to bin the crisps and biscuits and opt for popcorn and raisins instead for some surprising health benefits

However much you love popcorn, you’ve probably never thought of it as particularly healthy food, but now Dr Joe Vinson, professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton and his student Michael Coco have discovered that the snack has been somewhat undervalued. 

They have shown that the amount of polyphenols (a type of antioxidant, chemicals that can help protect against cell damage) in popcorn is almost equal to that contained in nuts, and is up to 15 times greater than the amounts in whole-grain tortilla chips.

Polyphenols are more concentrated in popcorn because it contains, on average, only four percent water. Many fruits and vegetables contain up to 90 percent water, which means that the polyphenols are diluted. The study found that a serving of popcorn could contain up to 300 mg of polyphenols, compared to 114 mg in a serving of sweetcorn and around 160 mg per serving of fruit.

If you do want to make the most of popcorn’s health benefits, don’t even think about spitting out the hulls. These, according Dr Vinson, are the most valuable part of the corn, containing the highest concentration of polyphenols and fibre. “Those hulls deserve more respect,” said Dr Vinson. “They are nutritional gold nuggets.”

How to make your popcorn healthier

You will have to watch how you ‘pop’ your corn though, as this can make a big difference to the calorie count. “Air-popped popcorn has the lowest number of calories,” said Dr Vinson. “Microwaved popcorn has twice as many calories as air-popped, and if you pop your own with oil, this has twice as many as calories as air-popped popcorn.” 

This study does need to be taken in context. The research, Dr Vinson pointed out, looked at popcorn as a snack, and as a possible replacement for a less healthy snack, not as a replacement for fruits and vegetables.

Sian Porter, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, agrees. “This reminds us that popcorn is a whole grain, and something that we can add to our healthy snack repertoire. As with everything you have to be careful what you add to it, but if you add small amounts of good oils it’s going to be healthier than crisps, for instance.”

The health benefits of raisins

If you like a little sweetness in your between-meal nibbles, raisins may be a good choice, especially if you have slightly higher than normal blood pressure. A new study has found that snacking on raisins, rather than biscuits, for example, significantly reduced systolic blood pressure (the top number in your blood pressure reading).

“Raisins are packed with potassium, which is known to lower blood pressure,” said Dr Harold Bays, lead investigator and medical director and president of Louisville Metabolic and Atherosclerosis Research Centre. “They are also a good source of antioxidant dietary fibre that may favourably alter the biochemistry of blood vessels, causing them to be less stiff, which in turn may reduce blood pressure.”

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