Alethea Turner reports:
When it comes to antioxidants, popcorn may have fruits and vegetables beat.
A new study suggests that one serving of popcorn has more antioxidants than a day's worth of fruits or vegetables, based on the average American diet.
"Popcorn may be the perfect snack food," study author Joe Vinson, a chemist at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, said in a statement. "It's the only snack that is 100 percent whole grain."
Foods labeled "whole grain" only have to be 51 percent whole grain. And more whole grains mean more health benefits.
Whole grains have "antioxidants and a lot more fiber than most other vegetables and fruits," Vinson said.
Antioxidants are substances that may play a protective role against cancer, heart disease and other diseases. They help combat free radicals produced by the body in response to certain exposures, like cigarette smoke and radiation.
And that piece of popcorn shell that gets stuck in your teeth? It's called the "hull" and it actually packs the highest concentration of antioxidants and fiber, which may make you think twice the next time you're tempted to spit it out.
"Popcorn works as a great snack food, but as with many foods … it's what you do to it that determines its health value," said Keith Ayoob, a registered dietitian and associate professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Oil, butter and salt dilute the health benefits of popcorn by adding fat and even doubling its calories. But if plain popcorn sounds too bland, consider adding spices or herbs to boost its taste.
"Get a little creative," says Ayoob. Instead of salt, "toss in flavorings like chili powder, cinnamon, curry powder, dried dill … or a teaspoon of grated parmesan cheese."
Misting the popcorn with a touch of water or a healthy oil - like olive or canola - helps the spices or herbs to stick to the popcorn better.
As always, the key is moderation. Adding a touch of natural flavor will enhance taste without adding too many calories.
It's good news for popcorn lovers, but don't ditch the broccoli and spinach just yet.
Dr. David Katz of Yale University emphasizes that popcorn should not replace fruits or vegetables. Instead it should be eaten instead of unhealthier options like potato chips.
"It would definitely be a good way to trade up your snacking," says Katz.
Katz and Ayoob both recommend a serving size no larger than 4 cups of air-popped popcorn - -less if it is not air-popped - which has about 100 calories.
Alethea Turner is a family medicine resident at Scottsdale Health Care in Arizona.