Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends

making it pop: flavored popcorn (part 1)

by Stephanie Zonis

According to the Popcorn Board (www.popcorn.org), in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available, sales of unpopped popping corn amounted to 995,774,706 (that's nine hundred ninety-five million, seven hundred seventy-four thousand, seven hundred six) pounds. Americans, who eat more popcorn that anyone else on the planet, chow down on some sixteen billion (that's “billion”, with a “b”) quarts annually, which figures out to somewhere between 51 and 59 quarts for every single man, woman, and child in the US. That's roughly one quart per person per week, so someone is eating an awful lot of this stuff. And if you think that Americans only eat popcorn at the movies, think again! The Popcorn Board notes that about 70% of all popcorn is consumed at home, not so far fetched if you think about the various poppers and microwave popcorn available (and, of course, there are still many people who pop their corn in a saucepan with a little oil). According to the Jolly Time website, the biggest consumers of popcorn are Moms with kids.

Over the past few years, flavored popcorn has become a big deal among snackers. But much of this is not your parents' flavored popcorn. Gone are the days when your choices were limited to butter flavor or none, salt or no salt. Popcorn today, see Proper Popcorn in Knoxville, Tennessee, is available in a veritable rainbow of colors, and the range of flavors out there will cause your jaw to scrape the ground. In doing research for this article, I found all of these popcorn flavors: Cabernet, Picklemint (a combination of peppermint- and pickle-flavored popcorn; I didn't have the guts to try it), Pimento Cheese, Mango, Chocolate Raspberry Lambic, Crabby Caramel (caramel popcorn with Old Bay Maryland crab seasoning), Macadamia Nut Pesto, Chicken Stew, Hot Boiled Crawfish, Bloody Mary, Saffron & Rose, Black Licorice, Shirley Temple, BLT, Candy Crushin (orange-ginger toffee, pink peppercorn, and pecans), and too many other atypical flavors to list. The people of this nation, it's evident, are willing to plunk down their cash for increasingly exotic tastes in popcorn.

In doing research for this article, I found over 150 companies selling flavored popcorn, a number that far exceeded my expectations. Why are so many people making flavored popcorn these days? An article in Time in 2013 quotes an executive vice president of the consulting company Technomic giving reasons for the explosion (sorry) of popcorn makers nationwide. Compared to many other types of business, the start-up costs are not astronomical; the equipment necessary for the business will fit in a kiosk or small storefront (if the business chooses not to operate entirely online, that is); and making even the most complex flavored popcorn is not something that requires an advanced degree or a lot of technical skill. That's part of the story, I know, but there's more to it. By itself, popcorn has a very neutral flavor, and there are some fantastically creative minds out there who regard popcorn as an edible blank canvas.

It's easy to make flavored popcorn cheaply. There are a few wholesale flavored popcorn businesses---that is, they'll pop and flavor the corn for you, bag it, and ship it to you so you can simply resell it. That can be inexpensive if you order mass quantities. But even for those who pop and flavor their own popcorn, there are popping and topping oils sold at an economical price and by the gallon; there are glaze mixes or powders for kettle corn and caramel corn and fruit flavors. Savory flavoring mixes for everything from Ranch to Loaded Baked Potato to Jalapeno Cheddar are readily available and comparatively inexpensive, which is a big reason that so many popcorn businesses offer so many of the same flavors. There are a limited number of companies who refuse to take shortcuts or use inexpensive ingredients. You'll have to look for them, but I find it a worthwhile search.

Popcorn History

Popcorn is a truly ancient food. According to the Popcorn Board, tiny ears of ancestral popping corn, found in caves in New Mexico, date back to around 2000 BCE (there is considerable debate about this timing; some sources believe this popcorn dates back to around 3500 BCE or earlier). It's obvious that many indigenous peoples in the Americas knew about popcorn. The “What's Cooking America” website (http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/PopcornHistory.htm) asserts that a Zapotec funeral urn, dating to roughly 300 CE, depicts a deity of maize with symbols representing primitive popcorn in his headdress. Ancient popcorn poppers have been found in Peru, dating from around the same time period.

Popcorn was an important part of Aztec culture; it was used as an offering to their gods, as well as for decoration of ceremonial necklaces, headdresses, and ornaments on statues of the deities. A one thousand year old kernel of popcorn was discovered in a dry cave, the home of ancestors of the Pueblo Indians. In the 1600's, French explorers in the Great Lakes region reported that the Iroquois popped corn in a pottery vessel, with heated sand providing the heat source; this was used to make popcorn soup, among other foods. A very charming legend about popcorn has been handed down from indigenous peoples about the popping of popcorn. Spirits live in popcorn kernels, it's said. Normally, these spirits are quiet and contented. But when the kernels (their homes) are heated to higher and higher temperatures, the spirits become angrier and angrier, shaking the kernels. When the heat becomes unbearable, the spirits burst forth from their kernel homes and vanish into the air in annoyance and steam.

Popcorn was known to the American colonists, who ate it as a breakfast cereal along with cream and sugar. And it's said that indigenous Americans brought popcorn as a snack to meetings with the colonists during negotiations, as a token of goodwill. Popcorn was strung on garlands to decorate Christmas trees and was an indispensable part of leisure activities. It was not until about 1890, however, that popcorn became important enough to be raised as a marketable crop. Prior to that time, people either raised their own or bought popcorn kernels from neighbors.

According to the GH Cretors website, the first automatic popcorn machine was invented and patented by Charles Cretors in Chicago in 1893. Before Cretors' invention, street vendors popped corn in wire baskets over open fires. The advantage of Cretors' machine was uniformity and consistency. Popcorn could now be popped with fewer burned or unpopped kernels, and it was popped in its own seasonings. For the first time, popcorn came out the same way every time it was popped. Street vendors with similar machines, steam- or gas-powered, were a common sight wherever crowds gathered, especially in parks and at fairs and festivals. These vendors remained part of the American landscape until the Great Depression. An early popcorn company with which many people are familiar is the American Pop Corn Company, founded by Cloid Smith in 1914. Smith introduced Jolly Time, which was America's first brand name popcorn.

As movie theaters spread across the US early in the 20th century, popcorn proved almost as big an attraction as the movies themselves. At first, movie-goers had to leave the theaters to buy popcorn from street vendors, but theater owners knew that they could increase profits if only there was a practical way to pop corn inside the theaters. That came about in 1925, when Charles T. Manley perfected an electric popcorn machine. During the Great Depression, popcorn was regarded by many families as one of the few “extras” they could afford; it sold for 5 to 10 cents per bag. When sugar was sent overseas for US troops during the Second World War, Americans, looking for snacking compensation, ate three times as much popcorn as they had before the war!

Even after World War II, the picture for popcorn was a rosy one. Consumption patterns began to shift; where popcorn had been a street snack and a treat at the movies before the war, the late 1940's saw more and more people making popcorn at home to enjoy while they watched television. The demand for popcorn continued to increase in the 1950's, even as the playing field became increasingly crowded with multiple new brands.

Air poppers were a product of the late 1970's. One of the early air poppers was from Presto, who in 1978 introduced the PopCornNow continuous corn popper. These poppers used hot air instead of hot oil to pop corn kernels, paving the way for popcorn as a healthier snack for those looking to cut down on fat and calorie consumption.

And what about microwave popcorn? It was invented much earlier than you might think. Perry L. Spencer was granted a patent on microwave popcorn---in 1949! But consumers had to wait many more years for microwave popcorn to become truly viable. Temperatures in early microwave ovens varied considerably throughout the interior, which meant that too many kernels would either burn (from too much heat) or not pop at all (from too little heat). It wasn't until 1981 that General Mills introduced the first commercially-available microwave popcorn, under the Pillsbury label.

Despite the convenience of air poppers and microwave popcorn, there are a lot of people who think popcorn produced by either of those methods just doesn't taste right. If you're one of them, you probably already know that there are a host of stovetop corn poppers available---everything from an ultra-high-end, famous-name, stainless steel model costing well over one hundred dollars to an inexpensive aluminum model. Of course, there's nothing wrong with using a saucepan with a lid, either.

How Does Popcorn Pop?

Popcorn kernels contain oil, water, and starch, all surrounded by a hard, strong, outer seed coating (the hull or pericarp). As the kernels are heated, the water inside tries to expand into steam, but the steam cannot escape through the hull. The hot oil and steam gelatinize the starch inside the kernel, which makes the starch softer and more pliable. Pressure inside the kernel builds as the temperature increases; when the kernels reach a temperature of 356 degrees F, the pressure inside will be roughly 135 psi (pounds per square inch). That's enough pressure to rupture the hull. The pressure is released very quickly, expanding the proteins and starch inside the kernel into a foam. The foam cools and sets into the fluffy popcorn we all know and love.

But care must be taken with popcorn if it's going to pop properly. Popcorn is harvested mechanically, but if kernels are damaged during harvest (the damage would take the form of scratches or cracks in the hull), the kernels won't expand properly when they pop. Kernels must be dried after the ears are harvested; fresh popcorn has too much moisture to pop well, and it's susceptible to mold if the kernels are stored for any length of time. On the other hand, if the kernels are over-dried, the expansion rate during popping will decline and the number of unpopped kernels will increase (the ideal moisture content for a popcorn kernel is around 13% to 14%).

Proper temperatures during popping are important, too. If popcorn is heated too quickly, steam inside the kernel can reach high pressure and rupture the hull before the starch has gelatinized fully, resulting in half-popped kernels with hard centers. On the other hand, if the kernels are heated too slowly, they may not pop at all. The tips of the kernels (the points at which they're attached to the cob) are not completely moisture-proof. Slowly-heated kernels may lead to the steam leaking out of the tips and prevent a sufficient pressure build-up inside the kernel for the hull to rupture.

One benchmark by which popcorn quality is judged is expansion. Unless the popcorn being sold is of the tiny variety, consumers like to see large pieces of popcorn. And for vendors such as movie theaters or ballparks, popcorn is bought by weight, but it's sold by volume, so corn that expands more as it pops is favored.

The Buzzwords

---Non-GMO. I am not a proponent of genetically modified organisms (GMO's, also called GE, or genetically-engineered), because those coming out have not been rigorously or thoroughly tested enough in a real-world scenario. So how can this buzzword be a negative? It isn't, but it's also not a proof of a popcorn seller's virtue or goodness of heart. Why? Although up to 90% of the corn now grown in America is genetically modified, there is currently no genetically-modified popcorn being grown in the US on a commercial scale, so all popcorn made from US-grown corn uses non-GMO corn. I have read that genetically-modified corn for popcorn is in the works, but when that will appear on the market (or if it will) is anyone's guess. On the other hand, a few businesses use non-GMO oils and/or other non-GMO ingredients. These non-GMO oils and other ingredients can be harder to find and more expensive than others, and I commend these companies for going the extra mile. Some manufacturers have taken the further step of having product(s) verified by the Non GMO Project; you can find out more about that here: www.nongmoproject.org.

---Gluten free. I certainly hope so! Gluten is a wheat protein, and the main grain ingredient for any popcorn is, well, corn. Corn contains storage proteins that are sometimes referred to as corn gluten, but they are not gluten at all. Some flavored popcorns do contain gluten; I've seen combinations that include pretzels or cookie chunks, and both pretzels and cookies are typically made from wheat. But unless your popcorn includes wheat ingredients, it should be gluten free. Some companies have had their products certified gluten free, but most just have a “gluten free” label on their packaging.

---No Trans Fat/ 0 g trans fat. Some of the fats used in flavored popcorns do contain partially hydrogenated oils. If trans fats are of concern to you, make sure you read the ingredient label.

---Whole Grain. Another crowd-pleasing claim often found on packaging these days, but at least it's truthful. All popcorn, flavored or unflavored, is whole grain. But that doesn't mean the popcorn is healthy; think about the other ingredients used in what you're consuming. If those are just a little bit of oil and a modest amount of salt or cheese or herbs, you've got yourself a snack any nutritionist would applaud. But if the popcorn is smothered in caramel and drenched in chocolate, does the whole grain aspect really matter for your health? Whole grain foods are fine, but they have to be part of an entire dietary picture.

---All Natural/100% Natural. At this writing, there is no legal definition for the word “natural”, meaning that anybody can use it to describe anything they wish. If you are concerned about ingredients, read labels.

Serving Sizes and Portion Control
The majority of the popcorns that contained nutrition information listed serving sizes of 28 to 30 grams, or just under one ounce to just over one ounce. But trying to standardize measurements for these servings isn't possible, and I saw ranges from one-third cup to almost four cups. The reason? A light, fluffy popcorn seasoned with a small amount of oil and sea salt or herbs will weigh far less than a popcorn covered in caramel. Calorie counts ranged from 35 per cup to well over 300 calories for the same quantity; grams of sugar and sodium per serving also varied widely, depending upon type of popcorn used and how the popcorn was flavored. Popcorn can be a healthy snack, but you still need to watch portion sizes.

Nutrition Information and Labeling
Some manufacturers do not have nutrition labeling on their packages. For foods produced within the US, the FDA does not mandate that a business have nutrition labeling on a package if that business has fewer than one hundred full-time equivalent employees and sells fewer than one hundred thousand total units of that food within the US during a one-year period. Unfortunately, if you are watching your sodium intake or counting calories, this doesn't make it easy for you to support small-scale popcorn businesses, the type who have just a few employees and can't even imagine producing one hundred thousand units of any of their popcorns annually (not yet, at any rate). This is a delicate balancing act. Nutrition assays are expensive, almost all popcorn businesses make more than one kind of popcorn (so the assays might have to be done for more than one popcorn), and unless you include a nutrition label on your package from the very beginning, incorporating one at a later date involves a packaging/label change, which is also an expensive proposition.

What's In My Popcorn?

There are four basic types of corn grown in the US. Sweet corn, field corn, ornamental corn, and popcorn. They are not interchangeable! Sweet corn is grown as a vegetable, field corn is usually ground into meal or animal feed, ornamental corn is grown for decoration, and then there's popcorn. Only popcorn has a starchy endosperm that expands (and eventually “pops”) when heated. A popped corn kernel is referred to as a “flake”.

But there's more than one type of popcorn. So-called “butterfly” corn pops into light and fluffy flakes. It tends to form more elongated, irregular shapes when it pops and can assume a shape like a butterfly's wings. Butterfly popcorn is said to be more tender, with less noticeable hulls, than “mushroom” popcorn, which has a more dense, compact, spherical shape. What a manufacturer uses for a flavored popcorn depends on what's being made. Mushroom popcorn is typically used for caramel corn or a popcorn with a candy coating; it's less fragile, as the popped corn has no projections that might break off during handling. Popcorn kernels are now available in a spectrum of hues, but all popped corn is white or cream-colored.

Recently, “tiny” popcorn has found increasing favor with the American public. This corn, when popped, is indeed very small, often less than half the size of the butterfly or mushroom varieties. This popcorn is sometimes called “hull-less”, but that's incorrect; all popcorn kernels have hulls. However, tiny popcorn has hulls that are tender and less noticeable than either the butterfly or mushroom styles of corn after popping.

Some flavored popcorn manufacturers air-pop their corn, which means that they use no fat in popping it. The majority, however, do use fat when popping corn. This fat can come from one or more sources, including canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, grapeseed oil, organic green tea oil, and/or coconut oil. I found one popcorn maker popping in peanut oil, but I was quite surprised by that, given the recent shunning of peanuts by so many consumers. An oil or combination of oils (or, alternatively, the decision to air pop) is based on a combination of factors, including cost, types of flavored popcorn being produced, target market, and personal preferences. And note that even if a popcorn is air-popped, fat may be used in or in addition to any flavoring(s) added.

And yes, I did mention coconut oil, which is very much in vogue now, in part for its supposed health benefits. Proponents claim it can do almost anything short of conferring immortality on those who cook with and consume it, though actual large-scale, long-term human research on any benefits is a bit thin on the ground. But wait---coconut oil? Isn't that the same product that was hounded out of movie theater popcorn in the 1980's because of the public outcry about its saturated fat content? Yes and no. Theaters were indeed using coconut oil to pop corn in the 1970's and 1980's, but it was a very different product. The virgin coconut oil available today was not available thirty or forty years ago; what food manufacturers used instead was a highly-processed version. Refined, deodorized, and bleached (RDB), it was partially hydrogenated and decidedly unhealthy.

Only a few of the producers who use coconut oil specify that they use virgin coconut oil. I don't know if the remainder use that or refined coconut oil. Yet, for all the claims of health benefits, it's important to remember that coconut oil contains about 90% saturated fat. Quite possibly, a product so high in saturated fat could be detrimental to heart health over the long term, but again, there isn't enough good information to support that claim---or refute it.

Then again, some people use coconut oil for its sensory qualities. When asked why Popcorn Asylum uses coconut oil to pop their corn, co-proprietor Ben Zion noted, “We use coconut oil because we want to give our customers as close to the archetypal popcorn flavor as we can without using the chemicals and flavorings that go into the popcorn we all grew up with and loved...Coconut oil is one note of that flavor chord, so we wanted to make sure to include that.”

As mentioned earlier, a lot of flavored popcorn in the US is made on the cheap. One way to do that is through the use of less expensive fats. An example of this is Tastee Pop, a liquid popcorn oil. Tastee Pop contains a blend of canola and coconut oils, as well as beta carotene, natural and artificial butter flavor, tertiary butylhydroquinine (TBHQ), and polydimethylsiloxane. As you'll see elsewhere in this article, manufacturers are not required to disclose the ingredients in either artificial or natural flavors. TBHQ is a preservative used to stabilize saturated fats; it greatly increases shelf-life and delays the onset of fat rancidity. The FDA limits the quantity of TBHQ in foods to a tiny percentage of the total oils. TBHQ is a derivative of butane, interestingly enough. It's been suggested that consumption of TBHQ over time can have a number of adverse health effects, but nobody knows for sure. And polydimethylsiloxane? According to Wikipedia, PDMS, as it's often called, is also known as dimethicone. It's a silicone oil used as an anti-foaming agent in food. Gold Medal Products, the manufacturer of Tastee Pop, notes that the product is “packed with diet-conscious essentials since it's gluten-free and dairy-free, with zero grams of trans fat”. Really? Exactly what kind of diet would you have to be following to consider this product “packed with diet-conscious essentials”?

Not for you? Perhaps you'd prefer a Naks Pop Coconut Oil Bar. This is a pre-measured, ready-to-use “bar” of coconut oil that's solid at room temperature. Touted as producing “golden, better tasting popcorn with the true taste of Theater Popcorn”, this product contains hydrogenated coconut oil, palm oil, hydrogenated cottonseed oil, beta carotene for color, and natural and artificial flavor.

There's a reason I don't eat popcorn at the movies any more, and it isn't related to the price. Aside from finding it too salty for my taste, I don't want to eat ingredients like those in Tastee Pop or Naks Pop Coconut Oil Bar. You must decide if such ingredients are acceptable to you.

---Natural and/or Artificial Flavors. If you ask people whether natural flavors are better for you than artificial flavors, most will say they are without being able to give you a reason behind their answer. But that may not be accurate.

The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) Title 21 has this definition for natural flavor or natural flavoring: “The essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating, or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.” The FDA's definition for artificial flavor or artificial flavoring involves any flavoring other than one that meets these standards. According to www.Flavorfacts.org, “this is where consumers can sometimes get confused.” Golly, ya think?

Flavorfacts.org goes on to explain that the compounds used to create natural and artificial flavors do not differ from one another chemically; the “natural” or “artificial” label is really a question of how the flavoring agent was derived. People tend to believe that something labeled “natural” is both safe and better for them than anything called “artificial”, but that's not necessarily true. In fact, the reverse may be true, because all of the components from which all artificial flavors are made must have a GRAS (generally recognized as safe) designation from the FDA. Chemists who create artificial flavors are called flavorists, and flavorists have more control over what goes into an artificial flavor than they do when deriving, say, an essential oil or essence from a root or bud.

Compounding natural flavors can be tricky. Because you're working with agricultural products, each lot will differ from the previous one and the next one. They are also costlier than artificial flavors, because companies must source materials from all over the globe and bring them back to the lab.

My biggest problem with natural and artificial flavors is that manufacturers are not required to tell you what's in them. In a country where every second individual seems to have at least one serious food sensitivity, I find this incredible, but it remains true. There are innumerable food businesses large and small in the US, and differentiation (that is, having elements that distinguish your product from the thousand other similar products available) is key. The ingredients of these natural and artificial flavors are considered a big part of why your food product is unique, so they're also proprietary information---in other words, a secret. Resorting to my time-honored standard phrase about reading labels if you have concerns is, alas, useless here---but you can look for popcorns that do not contain either natural or artificial flavors. If you see a popcorn that appeals to you and no ingredient list is provided (a common occurrence on a website), I'd have no hesitation in contacting the manufacturer to try to find out if that popcorn contains natural or artificial flavors, if you're looking to avoid them.

Food Coloring
If you enjoy the “candied” popcorns (flavors like Cherry or Green Apple or Blue Raspberry or a “Confetti” Mix ), recognize that they'll contain food coloring. Be aware, though, that food coloring can be used in other popcorns where you might not expect it. For instance, caramel coloring may be used in caramel (or other) popcorns. The FDA regulates all color additives used in the US, including, of course, those used in foods.

There are two main categories of permitted food color additives: certifiable and exempt. Certifiable colors require FDA certification for every batch produced. They are man-made, typically derived from petroleum and coal sources. They include any colors with an “FD&C” or “D&C” in front of their names. Sometimes the names are shortened to just the color and a number, such as Blue 2. Exempt colors, those that do not require FDA certification for every batch, include caramel color and grape color extract. Exempt colors are usually obtained from plant, animal, or mineral sources.

The FDA notes that “both types of colors are subject to rigorous safety standards” and insists that they are “very safe when used properly”. The agency further declares that “reactions to color additives are rare”, although it acknowledges that FD&C Yellow No. 5, tartrazine, may cause itching and hives in some people. There is a lot of controversy about this; food coloring is blamed for everything from exacerbating symptoms in children with ADHD to bladder tumors in rats. However, to date, no definitive human studies have established a connection between FDA-approved food dyes and negative health effects in humans.

While doing research for this article, I was unable to determine whether there are more sweet flavored popcorns or more savory flavored popcorns. But one thing is certain: Americans love their sweets, including the perenially-popular caramel. Of the 150+ popcorn businesses I found online, less than a handful did not offer at least one type of caramel corn.

I found at least nine types of sweeteners being used: cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, birch syrup, light corn syrup (a very common ingredient in caramel), honey, molasses, agave nectar, brown sugar, and maple syrup. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) may be used for some flavored popcorns, but I did not see it on any ingredient lists I checked.

Americans might love salt even more than they love sweet, but that's a tough call. Kettle corn, a mix of salted popcorn and popcorn with a sweet glaze, is ubiquitous these days. Many caramel popcorns also have detectable salt levels. And of course any kind of cheese popcorn is going to have some sodium, as cheese is an intrinsically salty food.

One reason salt is so prevalent as a flavoring agent is that it adds no calories. Because sea salt is currently fashionable, many popcorns include it. But if sodium levels in your food are a concern, you need to be selective about the popcorn you eat. Salt hides very well; even popcorn that doesn't taste especially salty can have a surprisingly high sodium content.

Other Flavoring Agents

There are some manufacturers who begin with genuine, good-quality ingredients. They eschew mixes and take the time and expend the effort to make a truly high-quality product. I applaud them for doing so. The others makers of these popcorns rely on flavorings. There's a reason that varieties like Kettle Corn, Caramel, White Cheddar, Bacon Cheddar, Nacho Cheddar, Garlic Parmesan, Ranch, Cajun, Barbecue, and many more are available from so many different popcorn makers: the flavorings to produce them are readily available from several popcorn-making supply houses. These flavorings may be powders (shaken on or scooped into hot popcorn, often with added fat); glazes; or liquids (drizzled into the popped corn in a revolving drum that evenly distributes the flavoring and ultimately dries it, as well). This doesn't mean that the people who use these flavorings are bad or wrong or that you shouldn't buy their popcorn; it's simply a matter of deciding what you want to eat and who you'd rather support. These flavoring agents are often sold to individual retail consumers, too, via the web. It's worth taking a look at some of them.

Flavacol (also made by Gold Medal Products) is an ultra-fine-grained salt for popcorn, described on Amazon as “the “secret” ingredient movie theaters don't want you to know”. The ingredients? Salt, artificial butter flavor, Yellow #5, and Yellow #6; additionally, there's a warning label that the product contains soy. There's also Better Buttery (BB) Flavacol, which, according to Gold Medal Products, has “a creamy, old-fashioned sweet butter taste”. BB Flavacol's ingredients are salt, artificial flavors, artificial sweetener (Acesulfame K), Yellow #5, and Yellow #6; it also contains soy. The Popcorn Popper website (www.popcornpopper.com) sells their own Butter Flavored Popcorn Topping, comprised of partially hydrogenated soybean oil, artificial butter flavor, beta carotene (for color), TBHQ, citric acid, and dimethylpolysiloxane. This Butter Flavored Popcorn Topping contains no sodium in a one tablespoon serving, but it does have 120 calories, all from fat, as well as 2 grams each of saturated and trans fats, and 5 grams of both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. If Americans ate popcorn with reasonable frequency and kept their portion sizes reasonable, this wouldn't be such a big deal, but they don't. As has been pointed out earlier, somebody in this country is eating an awful lot of this stuff, with an average consumption of between 51 and 59 quarts per year for every single person in the US. Whatever happened to a drizzle of melted butter (or olive oil) and a modest amount of salt?

Among other types of popcorn flavorings, not all are created equal. Consider the Kettle Corn seasonings from just three online vendors. Popcorn Supply (www.popcornsupply.com) offers a Kettle Corn “mix” which contains coconut oil, sugar, and beta carotene. Urban Accents' Kettle Corn powder has brown sugar, sugar, dextrose, salt, and minimal percentages of silicon dioxide (an anti-caking agent) and sunflower oil. And the Kettle Corn powder from Kernel Season's? Sugar, salt, natural flavor, and a minimal percentage of silicon dioxide. Compared to some other flavorings used in popcorn, those ingredient rosters are almost reasonable. Admittedly, though, kettle corn is a very simple flavoring.

What happens when we move to a slightly more complex flavor? White Cheddar seasoning is sold by both Kernel Season's and Urban Accents. The Urban Accents (www.urbanaccents.com) seasoning contains Cheddar cheese, buttermilk, whey, salt, and disodium phosphate (a stabilizer and/or emulsifier). The ingredients in the same seasoning flavor from Kernel Season's (www.kernelseasons.com) are Cheddar cheese, salt, whey, buttermilk solids, dextrose, hydrolyzed corn protein, disodium inosinate (a flavor enhancer/intensifier), guanylate (technically disodium guanylate, another flavor enhancer/intensifier), onion powder, garlic powder, and silicon dioxide. But there's more. Each company breaks down the ingredients for their Cheddar cheese, as they should. Urban Accent's Cheddar cheese contains pasteurized milk, cheese cultures, salt, and enzymes. These are standard ingredients for a Cheddar cheese. Kernel Season's Cheddar cheese includes a blend of Cheddars; milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes, whey, soybean oil, whey protein concentrate, lactose, maltodextrin, citric acid, lactic acid, yeast extract, and lecithin are the components. Just what are soybean oil, yeast extract, and maltodextrin doing in Cheddar cheese? I don't have an answer for that, but clearly, one of these White Cheddar seasonings is much more about cost than it is about good ingredients. And that's true for a great many ingredients that go into flavored popcorns. Incidentally, truthinlabeling.org declares that disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate are “expensive flavor potentiators that work synergistically with processed free glutamic acid”--and that the two are cost-effective solely when used with processed free glutamic acid.

Speaking of yeast extract, maltodextrin, and free glutamic acid, I also want to mention monosodium glutamate (MSG) here. Now, I didn't find MSG on any popcorn ingredient lists, but in some cases that's due to a technicality. Let me explain. The wiseGEEK website states that salt added to live yeast causes a chemical process called “autolysis”. The autolyzed yeast, as it's called, is now inactive (that is, you couldn't use it to leaven dough), and it has a higher protein concentration than does live yeast. Autolyzed yeast can be further processed to create a yeast extract. The higher protein concentration of yeast extract and autolyzed yeast gives them a flavor similar to beef, and both are used heavily in the processed food industry to add a meaty, savory note to foods, including vegetarian foods. How does any of this relate to MSG? MSG, it turns out, is derived from autolyzed yeast. MSG and autolyzed yeast chemically alter taste buds. They contain an enzyme, free glutamic acid, that stimulates taste buds sensitive to savory flavors---that is, the umami, or fifth taste, that's been so much in the news over the past few years. Some people are sensitive to free glutamic acid; if you are one of them, you already know you need to watch labels for ingredients such as autolyzed yeast and yeast extract. But other ingredients (according to truthinlabeling.org, those can include hydrolyzed protein, soy sauce, maltodextrin, Worcestershire sauce, and yes, natural flavor), indicate the presence of free glutamic acid from these or other sources. In my estimation, unless you're sensitive to free glutamic acid, MSG, autolyzed yeast, yeast extract, or other sources of free glutamic acid are far from being the worst things you can consume. But once again, the burden to do ingredient research is put upon the consumer; why can't there be more transparency in labeling?


“Koyaanisqatsi” is a word from the Hopi language, meaning crazy life or a state of life that calls for another way of living. Americans have a koyaanisqatsi relationship with food. We don't seem to be able to do much regarding food reasonably. It's either all denial/deprivation (take your pick from the schools of Fat is Bad, Carbs are Bad, Protein is Bad, Sugar is Bad, Meat is Bad, Dairy is Bad) or all indulgence (huge portions and unconscionable quantities of sugary beverages and alcohol and salt). I don't know where common sense and moderation have gone, but I do know that a distressing percentage of the American public is overweight, with the ills that accompany that condition. If you eat a sensible diet, having a supremely indulgent popcorn as an occasional treat probably won't hurt you, even if the ingredients aren't of top quality. You can even eat popcorn more often if it's not so over-the-top (a little real butter or a drizzle/spritz of oil, some herbs or a smallish quantity of grated cheese). But if you take away nothing else from this article, please understand that Americans need to think more about what we eat. We need to consider our current centralized food production system. We need to ponder portion sizes. And we especially need to think about the ingredients in our food.

Researching these businesses and tasting all of the popcorns I evaluated has given me a profound appreciation for the people who make good-quality caramel from scratch and use real fruit in their fruit-flavored popcorn and employ other good-quality ingredients that they're willing to disclose. In fairness, I tried quite a few flavored popcorns for this article that include many ingredients I try not to consume on a regular basis, and some of them were pretty darn tasty. But it is up to you to decide what you're willing to eat consistently, occasionally, or not at all---a process not helped by the fact that so many ingredients can hide under alternate names or in the guise of “natural flavor” or “artificial flavor”.




---Tracy Boever, Director, PR & Marketing Communications,
Jolly Time Pop Corn, personal communication





---Popcorn Favorites, John (Jack) Podojil, Trafford Publishing, 2013















---Harvard Heart Letter, January 2014 issue

---Personal communication, Ben Zion, Popcorn Asylum













Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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