Popcorn lab
University of Syracuse chemist Joe Vinson readies a bowl of popcorn for tests in the lab. Terry Connors

Next time you're at the movie theater, you might feel a little less guilty about ordering that large popcorn: one researcher found that the snack contains more antioxidants than many fruits and vegetables.

Antioxidants act as the cleaning crews of cells, mopping up free radicals that can damage DNA and cells.

Popcorn is loaded with these cell protectors, according to Joe Vinson, a chemist at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. Vinson presented the study results Sunday at the meeting of the American Chemical Society. The study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

A serving of popcorn contains up to 300 milligrams of the antioxidant polyphenol, compared to 114 mg for a serving of sweet corn and up to 160 mg for one serving of varied fruits. The popcorn hull - that filmy, dark brown bit that usually gets caught between your teeth - actually had the highest concentration of polyphenols and fiber, according to the study.

Those hulls deserve more respect, Vinson said in a statement. They are nutritional gold nuggets.

Research remains inconclusive as to how polyphenols in food may work in the human body, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not put forward a daily recommended dose of polyphenols.

And even though popcorn may have health benefits, slathering on salt, butter or butter substitute can pile on fat and calories that far outweigh the food's antioxidant value.

Still, popcorn has other benefits that make it an attractive snack: one serving provides more than 70 percent of a person's daily intake of whole grain, according to Vinson.

The average person only gets about half a serving of whole grains a day, and popcorn could fill that gap in a very pleasant way, Vinson said.

Polyphenols are found in a wide range of foods, including tea, which contains high levels of a kind of polyphenol called flavonoids. There is an average of 108 mg of flavonoids in 100 ml of brewed black tea, and an average of 139 mg of flavonoids in 100 ml of brewed green tea, according to a USDA database.

For comparison, 100 grams (about a quarter of a pound) of raw spinach contains only about 6 mg of flavonoids, according to the database.

Blueberries are on par with black tea, it turns out: 100 g contains about 117 mg of flavonoids, on average, the USDA says.