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Brown Bag It: Popcorn

popcornYou may think you're being healthy by crunching away on that all-American snack of popcorn. But lately popcorn seems to be getting a bad rap. So which is it?

If you ask the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), you'll get this startling fact: A medium-sized unbuttered popcorn bought at the movies weighs in at an astonishing 1200 calories. That's the equivalent of four fast-food cheeseburgers or 5 slices of pepperoni pizza!

But on the other hand, researchers from the American Chemical Society found that popcorn contains more naturally occurring, cancer-fighting plant chemicals called polyphenols than do fruit and vegetables. In water-heavy fruits and vegetables, the polyphenol content is diluted, while in popcorn – with its low water content – the polyphenols are concentrated.

Making a pitch for popcorn, Joe Vinson, PhD, of the University of Scranton, says, "Popcorn may be the perfect snack food. It's the only snack that is 100 percent unprocessed whole grain. All other grains are processed and diluted with other ingredients, and although cereals are called 'whole grain,' this simply means that over 51 percent of the weight of the product is whole grain. One serving of popcorn will provide more than 70 percent of the daily intake of whole grain."

Of course, Vinson stresses that popcorn isn't "better" than fruits and vegetables, which are packed with many different phytochemicals that offer health benefits. He's also careful to note that the popcorn you get at movie theaters comes with a heavy caloric count – and that many microwave versions aren't much better.

So, it looks like popcorn can still remain the sensible snack you've hoped it's been – but make sure you pop it yourself. And while you're at it, take your colleagues' feelings into account before popping in the office. Not everyone loves the smell of popcorn, so why not pop your corn at home, using an air popper to save calories (which will keep off excess pounds and control your cancer risk), and perk up both the taste and the health benefits by adding cancer-fighting spices like cumin, curry powder, paprika, or garlic powder. It's a healthier – and more considerate – option.

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