Antioxidants Abound in Cereals, Popcorn, Whole-Grain Snacks

Study finds these foods contain high levels of polyphenols

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By Peter West
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Aug. 18 (HealthDay News) -- Eating a bowl of your favorite cereal every day is a great source of natural antioxidants, new research shows.

Joe Vinson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania, and his team have found that nearly all whole-grain breakfast cereals and many common, grain-based snacks contain substantial amounts of polyphenols, a form of antioxidants that is thought to have major health benefits. Vinson was scheduled to present his findings Tuesday at the American Chemical Society annual meeting, held in Washington, D.C.

"Cereals have a plethora of [good things]," said Vinson, who tested more than 30 brands and types of breakfast cereals found in supermarkets. "They all have polyphenols."

Whole grains are the main source of polyphenols in breakfast cereals, and since nearly all cereals contain at least some whole grains, it stands to reason that consumers should consider making cereals a regular part of their diet, said Vinson, adding that he received no food industry funding for his study.

"Early researchers thought the fiber was the active ingredient for these benefits in whole grains -- the reason why they may reduce the risk of cancer and coronary heart disease," Vinson noted. "But recently, polyphenols emerged as potentially more important. Breakfast cereals, pasta, crackers and salty snacks constitute over 66 percent of whole grain intake in the U.S. diet," he added.

"We found that, in fact, whole-grain products have comparable antioxidants per gram to fruits and vegetables," Vinson said. "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."

Polyphenols occur naturally in plants and are the most abundant antioxidant. They have anti-inflammatory properties, and scientists believe they may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and other illnesses.

Nutritionists have recommended regular consumption of green tea, red wine, fruits, nuts and a few other food categories for their antioxidant content. Vinson found that cereals containing whole-grain corn or oats contained the most polyphenols, roughly 0.2 percent by weight per box. Wheat-based cereals contained an average of 0.07 percent polyphenols, and rice cereals contained the lowest amount, at 0.05 percent.

Raisin bran had the most polyphenols -- 3 percent by weight; however, Vinson attributed the concentration to the raisins -- like other dried fruits, a known rich source of antioxidants.

Another high-ranking cereal was a wheat-based blend containing the polyphenol-rich spice cinnamon. Vinson declined to name the brands he tested, but he encouraged people to add nuts, raisins and various spices like cinnamon to their cereal to boost their polyphenol content.

As for snacks, Vinson found that popcorn had the most polyphenols (2.6 percent), followed by whole-grain crackers (0.45 percent). Sadly, most processed tortilla chips -- Vinson's favorite -- contained negligible amounts of polyphenols.

Registered dietician and nutritionist Eva To, who practices in White Plains, N.Y., said she found the study fascinating, but she had some concerns.

"Whole-grain cereal is a great replacement for high-fat breakfast food or as a replacement for no breakfast at all, since breakfast is the most important meal of the day," said To, who specializes in obesity and diabetes management. "But moderation is the key. Many cereals contain ingredients that may not be very good for you, such as excessive sugar."

Also, she added, "cereals are easy to binge on. It is very important to follow the serving size suggestions."

To Vinson, the benefits of eating more cereals may outweigh the negatives.

"We always think of fruits and vegetables as the primary sources of polyphenols," he said. "But many people, especially students, don't eat enough of them. Here we have a product that is very familiar in the diet and that people like to eat. We can push kids to eat more whole grains."