Cancer Research UK urges caution over reports of 'healthy' popcorn antioxidants

In collaboration with the Press Association

Cancer Research UK has played down reports that antioxidants in popcorn and other whole grain foods could prevent cancer, after research found they contain high levels.

A study presented at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society found that many breakfast cereals and snack foods such as popcorn contain "surprisingly large" levels of polyphenols.

But a Cancer Research UK spokesperson pointed out that the evidence linking antioxidants to cancer prevention was inconsistent, and that many of the foods mentioned in the research often have high quantities of salt, saturated fat and sugar.

According to the study, carried out by US researchers, wheat was found to provide the most polyphenols, followed by corn, oats and rice cereals, and popcorn was found to be the whole grain snack with the highest level of antioxidants.

Polyphenols are chemicals known to occur naturally in fruits, vegetables, chocolate, wine and tea, but the latest study from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania is the first to reveal the high antioxidant content of whole grain foods.

Lead researcher Dr Joe Vinson, a chemist at the University of Scranton, commented: "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.

"We found that, in fact, whole grain products have comparable antioxidants per gram to fruits and vegetables. This is the first study to examine total phenol antioxidants in breakfast cereals and snacks, whereas previous studies have measured free antioxidants in the products."

However, Liz Baker, Cancer Research UK's senior science information officer, emphasised that just because a food is high in antioxidants does not mean it is automatically 'healthy' or can prevent cancer.

"Not all studies suggest that antioxidants are beneficial for preventing diseases like cancer. Others suggest they have no effect, and some research has found they could even interfere with cancer treatment - so the jury's still out," she revealed.

"We should also bear in mind that every piece of food we eat is a mish-mash of hundreds of chemicals and antioxidants are just some of these. When it comes to popcorn, although it is high in fibre, we also need to think about whether it has a fatty, sugary or salty coating, as diets high in saturated fat, sugar or salt can contribute to weight gain or cancer risk."