Popcorn Study Puts Scranton Faculty Member and Student in National Spotlight

Mar 26, 2012

A research study by University of Scranton Chemistry Professor Joe Vinson, Ph.D., reported that popcorn contains more of the healthful antioxidant substances called “polyphenols” than fruits and vegetables. Dr. Vinson and Michael G. Coco, an undergraduate chemistry major at The University of Scranton from Exeter who participated in the study, presented their findings at the 243rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society, in San Diego, Calif., on March 25. The study is being reported by news outlets throughout the nation.

Their participation in a news conference about the study is among the recent videos posted on the American Chemical Society’s website. 

Dr. Vinson, a pioneer in analyzing healthful components in chocolate, nuts and other common foods, explained that the polyphenols are more concentrated in popcorn, which averages only about 4 percent water, while polyphenols are diluted in the 90 percent water that makes up many fruits and vegetables.

Dr. Vinson pointed out that popcorn cannot replace fresh fruits and vegetables in a healthy diet. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins and other nutrients that are critical for good health, but are missing from popcorn.

Previous studies found low concentrations of free polyphenols in popcorn, but Dr. Vinson’s team did the first study to calculate total polyphenols in popcorn. The amounts of these antioxidants were much higher than previously believed, he said. The levels of polyphenols rivaled those in nuts and were up to 15 times greater than whole-grain tortilla chips.

The new study found that the amount of polyphenols found in popcorn was up to 300 mg a serving compared to 114 mg for a serving of sweet corn and 160 mg for all fruits per serving. In addition, one serving of popcorn would provide 13 percent of an average intake of polyphenols a day per person in the United States. Fruits provide 255 mg per day of polyphenols and vegetables provide 218 mg per day to the average U.S. diet.

Coco, a member of the University’s class of 2013, said he benefited in several ways from his research participation.

“From working on this project with Dr. Vinson, I’ve gained experience and many insights in doing scientific research,” said Coco. “Besides the obvious things like learning how to use instrumentation and perform analyses, I’ve also learned that research is extremely satisfying, especially when you discover or think of something no one else has thought of.”

In another finding, the researchers discovered that the hulls of the popcorn actually have the highest concentration of polyphenols and fiber.

“Those hulls deserve more respect,” said Dr. Vinson, who cautioned, however, that the way people prepare and serve popcorn can quickly put a dent in its healthful image.

“Air-popped popcorn has the lowest number of calories, of course,” Dr. 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.”

Funding from The University of Scranton supported this study.

Numerous news articles from across the country reported on the study including USA TodayTimeU.S. NewsWebMDScience Daily, CBS News and the ScrantonTimes-Tribune.

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