Good news: munching on some cereal, snack crackers, or popcorn may actually give you a healthy dose of antioxidants, say researchers from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. The antioxidants found in these foods are polyphenols, the same type that abound in berries, broccoli, tea, wine, cocoa, and coffee, and have been found to combat destructive free radicals in our bodies which can lead to oxidative stress and, over time, a variety of diseases.

...[M]any whole grain foods actually contain ‘comparable antioxidants per gram to fruits and vegetables’...

The researchers, led by Joe Vinson, analyzed 30 breakfast cereals commonly found in the grocery store, and an assortment of other grain−based snack foods. The key is that these foods almost always contain some amount of whole grains – from oat, wheat, or rice – and it is this feature that gives these foods their high antioxidant concentration.

Vinson says his study found that many whole grain foods actually contain “comparable antioxidants per gram to fruits and vegetables.” Of the cereals, whole grain oat− and corn−based cereals contained the highest polyphenol concentration (0.2% weight per box), followed by wheat−based cereals (0.07%), and finally rice−based cereals, coming in at 0.05% polyphenols.

Interestingly, of the snack foods he tested, popcorn had the highest concentration of antioxidants, at 2.6%. Next in line were whole grain crackers at 0.45%. Vinson said that he was personally saddened to find that tortilla chips hardly contained any polyphenols at all.

"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 said. "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.”

Vinson adds that because many Americans don’t include enough fruits and vegetables in their diets, whole grain foods can provide another means of getting those crucial antioxidants. "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."

The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington, D.C on August 29, 2009.