No matter if it’s sprinkled with a little salt or drenched in butter, caramel or another flavoring, popcorn is a snack that’s been long loved for its versatility.
And, combined with growing interest in snacking and on-the-going eating, popcorn is poised to build on its nutritional profile and likeability, says Phil Fox, v.p. of product development and head chef for California-based Popcornopolis.
“Popcorn is the thread woven through the American experience,” he said. “Whether it’s fond memories of popping at home, munching in the theater, or watching the excitement of kettle corn being made at their local fair, our founder Wally Arnold says, ‘everyone has a popcorn story.’”
For many American consumers, that story is expanding and evolving, according to data from Mintel. The research firm reported U.S. retail sales of popcorn increased 32 percent over the last five years to reach an estimated $2.5 billion in 2017, with ready-to-eat popcorn leading the flavor innovation wave, growing 118 percent between 2012-17 to reach $1.1 billion.
Traditional varieties, such as cheese-flavored and caramel corn, are among consumers’ favorites, but Mintel says nearly 40 percent of consumers are interested in mixed-flavor combinations like the Chicago classic, cheese and caramel corn together. Meanwhile one-fifth of consumers are intrigued by inclusions such as nuts, dried fruits or candy pieces.
Bridgette Kovacevich, marketing brand manager for Eagle Foods, producer of the G.H. Cretor’s brand, pointed to the physical features that make popcorn an ideal medium for playing with flavor.
“Popcorn is the best vehicle to add any of type of flavoring to it because of how it pops, especially if you use a popcorn that pops into a fluffy, mushroom-style (shape),” she said. “It really grabs onto whatever flavoring is there and really intensifies on popcorn.”
While the brand’s top-selling flavors are The Mix (cheddar and caramel corn), Cheese and Caramel Corn, respectively, G.H. Cretors hasn’t been afraid to play with flavor. Last year, the brand introduced the Buffalo Ranch Mix, featuring kernels with spicy buffalo sauce flavoring and kernels with cool ranch flavoring.
This spring, the brand is launching the Peanut Butter Lovers Mix, featuring kettle corn and peanut butter caramel corn, playing into the sweet-and-salty flavor combination that consumers love.
And then there’s Dill Pickle popcorn. Made with organic, Non-GMO Project verified corn, it’s flavored with vinegar, dill pickle seasoning and dill weed.
“The pickle is a very unique flavor, but the people who love that dill pickle flavor really love the experience of having that tanginess and a little bit of salt on their popcorn,” Kovacevich said.
Bill Pozdoll, vice president and general manager of The Popcorn Factory, a division of 1-800-Flowers.com, Inc., also noted popcorn’s neutral base flavor lends itself well to experimentation.
“With just a few shakes of cinnamon, parmesan cheese or curry, consumers can quickly and easily create a sweet or savory flavor for whatever they’re craving,” he said. “More than ever, popcorn consumers are interested in variety, seeking both familiar and unexpected flavor options.”
In addition to exotic, regional and ethnic flavors, Pozdoll said sophisticated spins on classic combinations — such as Lemon Herb Butter and Smoked Gouda — are becoming more common. Among The Popcorn Factory’s newest launches are Cookies & Creme, Salted Caramel Bourbon, Holiday Cookie Dough, Chocolate-Covered Strawberry and Tangerine Vanilla Caramel varieties.
“Flavors are very important to our product lines, and we stay directly tuned in to industry trends and consumer tastes, tapping a broad spectrum of sources as we identify new flavors to launch,” Pozdoll said. “We continue to explore new possibilities with popcorn, including ideas that are trendier to determine how they might rate as a possible snack flavor.”
Flavoring kernels isn’t the only way to change things up. Makers of ready-to-eat popcorn are drizzling kernels with icing and mixing in fruit, nuts and other pieces to add variety and texture.
“Inclusions are a major value-add,” Fox said. “Consumers love variety of textures they contribute beyond just the visual appeal. We’ve recently launched flavors including inclusions as a major element like Hot Cocoa & Marshmallow, which is topped with real mini marshmallows after applying our signature chocolately drizzle. We’re on some really cool new concepts with lots of inclusions, like varieties will nuts, pretzels, fruit and chocolate.”
And, playing on the popularity of unicorns, Popcornopolis has launched a mix representing the trendy mythical creature.
“Unicorn is geared toward kids but also kids at heart, really anyone who enjoys sweet and tangy stuff,” Fox said. “It’s a trio of colored kernels drizzled with blue and yellow lemon-flavored icing. Despite challenges, the wild rainbow of colors and flavors was produced using natural ingredients.”
Though popcorn flavors can be as creative or indulgent as imagination allows, popcorn’s health benefits can’t be ignored. Naturally gluten-free and containing antioxidant polyphenols, popcorn is a lower-calorie, higher-fiber snacking option.
“The basic nutritional properties and benefits of popcorn have also become increasingly important to the growth of the category as the consumer demand for healthier snack options continues to rise,” Pozdoll said. “Plus, there’s nothing better than popcorn for a movie night at home.”