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Popcorn and breakfast cereals, frequently derided as junk food, may contain "surprisingly large" servings of healthy antioxidants, according to chemical researchers.
Any nutritional value of snack foods was previously thought to rest on their high fibre content – a virtue regularly trumpeted by manufacturers on food packaging.
But a study presented today to the American Chemical Society (ACS) suggests the benefit of grain-based foods lies in the significant presence of antioxidants known as polyphenols.
Antioxidants are thought to protect cells from damage and mop up free radical molecules, which may lead to illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. Although the beneficial role of antioxidants has, in the past, been questioned by other medical research teams, the latest report will provide comfort for popcorn-munching couch potatoes.
"Early researchers thought the fibre was the active ingredient for these benefits in whole grains, the reason why they may reduce the risk of cancer and coronary heart disease," Dr Joe Vinson, a chemist at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, who led the study, told the ACS.
"But recently, polyphenols emerged as potentially more important. Breakfast cereals, pasta, crackers, and salty snacks constitute more than 66% of whole-grain intake in the US diet. This is the first study to examine total phenol antioxidants in breakfast cereals and snacks."
Polyphenols are one of the main reasons why fruits and vegetables, chocolate, wine, coffee and tea are thought to lower the risk of heart disease, cancer and other diseases.
Cold whole-grain cereals have significantly more antioxidants than processed grain foods, the study found. Among the salty snacks examined by the team, popcorn contained the most antioxidants.
By Owen Bowcott