This week: Science serves up the perfect snack

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Some of our favorite foods are having a very good week — in the usual medical journals and at the San Diego gathering of the American Chemical Society that ends today. Mash them all up with just a little help from us, and we think you have a pretty good recipe for snack heaven. Read on.

Popcorn, for instance, won accolades as the “perfect snack food” because, according to University of Scranton chemist Joe Vinson, a serving has twice the polyphenols of most fruits or vegetables. Compared with fruits and veggies, which are largely water, popcorn, says Vinson, packs a more concentrated dose of the phytonutrients, which are thought to prevent cellular oxidation, the start of all things bad.

Even the kernels — those bits that get caught in your teeth — are packed with the alleged cancer-preventing antioxidant, says Vinson. But make no mistake, it’s healthiest air-popped.

Chocolate also got a boost this week, in an article published by the Archives of Internal Medicine. (It was a big topic in San Diego as well.) Surveying 1,018 men and women between the ages of 20 and 85, UC San Diego’s Dr. Beatrice Golomb found that those who reported eating the most chocolate had lower body-mass indices (BMIs) than did respondents who reported little to no chocolate consumption, despite the finding that both groups appeared to consume roughly equal calories.

Golomb cited research showing that cocoa-derived epicatechin — once again, a polyphenol — appears to positively affect metabolic function and promote lean muscle mass over fat deposition. Sweet!

Chili peppers got a thumbs up this week too. Zhen-Yu Chen of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told an audience at the American Chemical Society meeting that capsaicinoids — the chemicals that give habaneros, jalapenos, cayennes and other chili peppers their heat — boost heart health by supporting the breakdown and removal of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol from the blood and blocking the action of a gene that makes blood vessels contract. Add a little fire to the plasma, it turns out, and the blood flows more freely.

And then there was the extract of green coffee beans. While it has only half the caffeine of a cup of coffee, and might not taste so good straight from the capsule (Vinson, lead author of the study presented in San Diego, says it’s “extremely bitter”), it might help with weight loss, and more specifically, with loss of body fat — again, possibly by boosting metabolic function.

This got me to thinking: Could all of these ingredients — popcorn, chocolate, chili peppers and coffee beans — be used in a single, delicious confection? Methinks yes, it could. Here is the recipe for what is, perhaps, the world’s perfect snack food: Aztec caramel chocolate popcorn.

As we head into a beautiful spring weekend, I suggest making a batch of the spicy chocolate popcorn confection and cracking open a nice bottle of red wine. (Pinot Noir is said to be the varietal with the densest concentration of resveratrol, the much-touted fountain of youth.)

Slip in a nice dance or exercise CD. Put up your feet. (A study out this week on the journal PLoS One found that just watching ballerinas dance prompted the brains of veteran spectators to mimic the muscle moves the dancers were making; so even if you’re sofa-bound, at least your brain will get a work-out!) Toast and munch to your health.