Movie night, game night, carnivals, parades, baseball games—all are American pastimes, and none is complete without one of America's favorite snacks:popcorn. With options including old-fashioned popping kernels, microwavable popcorn, bagged popcorn, single-serve, low-fat, trans fat-free and a smorgasbord of flavors, popcorn is one of the most versatile snacks available. And these days, it's easy to find natural and organic versions of the crunchy stuff, a fact that will keep your customers popping into your aisles for more of their favorite nosh.
Kernels of truth
Besides being one of the most popular snack foods, popcorn just might be the oldest, too. "Popcorn was discovered thousands of years ago. An excavation done in some caves in New Mexico found popcorn kernels that dated back to 4,000 to 5,600 years ago," says Wendy Rappel, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based Popcorn Board. "The scientists heated the kernels up, and indeed they still popped," she notes.
Even though popcorn has been around for centuries, the novelty of a food that explodes when it's cooked hasn't worn off. "If you think about it, no other food does that," Rappel says. "It's the thing that makes popcorn entertaining and fun." Popcorn's poppy nature can be attributed to the fact that, unlike other types of corn, each kernel holds a minute amount of water inside its shell. When the kernels are heated, they act like tiny pressure cookers, turning the water inside to steam until the kernels explode. "Inside each kernel is starch, which turns to a goopy, gelatinized material when it's heated. When the kernel bursts, this material spills out and immediately hardens, which gives popcorn its unique shape," Rappel says.
The moisture inside popcorn makes proper storage important. "In order to pop correctly, popcorn should have a 14 percent water content. If you leave it out without being sealed in an airtight container, it won't pop or will taste stale," Rappel says.
A good-for-you grain
Americans increasingly want their snacks to be low in fat, cholesterol, salt and calories. Popcorn is not only a healthy treat, but its nutritional value is easily controlled based on how it's prepared. "If you snack on popcorn, you're not consuming empty calories. It's a whole grain, a good source of carbohydrates and adds fiber to the diet. One cup cooked without oil has 31 calories, and cooked with oil, it has 55 calories," Rappel says.
And if consumers don't want to take the time to pop their corn the old-fashioned way, they can still find healthy pre-popped or microwavable versions. For instance, Farmer Steve's organic microwavable popcorn is lightly salted but contains no oil or fat. "If someone wants to add butter or flavor, they can do it themselves; this way we're providing something that's really healthy and simple," says Steve Spayd, co-owner of the Ringoes, N.J.-based company.
However, conventional popcorn is one of the top 10 most chemically contaminated foods in the United States, according to the 2003 Total Diet Study conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Spayd, who has a master's degree in public health, describes three ways in which conventional popcorn becomes polluted: "First of all, the corn is sprayed with chemicals while it's growing. Then it's stored for a long time, and they fumigate it with a mist to kill moths and worms. Finally, the oil they put on it to help it pop is [unhealthy], not to mention the fact that a lot of pesticides are fat-soluble, so they are absorbed into the popcorn when the oil is added," he says.
Ian Walker, president of Skeet & Ike's, a Burnaby, B.C.-based organic snack food company, agrees that concerns over conventional popcorn account for some of the boom in natural and organic popcorn sales. "People are looking for healthy alternatives for the whole family. Popcorn is easy to make without processing, and people like it because it's air-popped, not popped in oil," he says. According to Walker, sales of Skeet & Ike's bagged popcorn increased 45 percent during the last year.
Another reason natural popcorn is gaining popularity is because of increased consumer awareness about genetically modi?fied organisms. "Corn is one of the most common GMO ingredients out there, and people are learning not to buy it. They feel a little safer buying products made with organic corn. Plus organic corn is not that expensive, so customers don't have to spend that much more to eat it," Walker says.
Transcending trans fats
One of the main concerns with microwavable popcorn has been its trans fat content. Spayd explains that partially hydrogenated oils are handy for manufacturers to use in microwavable packets because they are solid at room temperature. "Everyone told us you couldn't make microwavable popcorn without oil, that you needed to use hydrogenated oils, but we've done it without them," Spayd says. "Our secret has to do with getting the exact right moisture content in each kernel and having a uniform kernel size in every bag. That way, they all pop at the same time and don't burn," he says.
But what about microwavable popcorn that does contain oil? Is it possible to make it without trans fats? According to Nell Newman, president of Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Newman's Own Organics, the answer is yes. Instead of using partially hydro?genated oils, Newman's Own Organics uses palm fruit oil in its microwavable popcorn. "Organic palm oil is different from palm kernel oil. Organic palm oil is extracted only from the fruit and is not refined, only filtered. Palm oil is plant-derived, so it has no cholesterol and is lower in saturated fat than butter," she says.
Newman is also conscientious about where her company sources its palm oil. Instead of getting it from Indonesian farms that are responsible for destroying much of the Southeast Asian rain forest, "we get our palm oil from sustainable farms in Colombia," she says.
"Popcorn is essentially a healthy snack. It got a bad rap for a while in the early '80s when people realized that the movie-theater butter was really bad for you. But now the trend is shifting. Companies are making health a priority without sacrificing taste," Rappel says. Even Orville Redenbacher now makes trans fat-free popcorn, single-serve microwavable popcorn bags and organic microwavable popcorn.
"Popcorn was a part of my childhood, and I still make it almost every day the way my dad made it when I was growing up," Newman says. Indeed, popcorn is an American tradition, and now it's a healthier snack than ever before. There's never been a better reason to keep on popping.
Christine Spehar is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p.26