Popcorn wins for best grain in a leading snack role

When the Academy Awards are handed out Sunday night, will it be “Lincoln”? “Argo”? “Zero Dark Thirty?”

And, for those watching and noshing at home, will it be buttered? Salted? Crisped with a sugar coating?

We’re talking popcorn, which has long played a starring role among movie snacks. Film fans’ love affair with popcorn goes back at least to the Depression, when it was a rare, affordable treat at 5 or 10 cents a bag. Demand soared during World War II, when “sugar was sent overseas for U.S. troops,” limiting its availability for confectioners at home, reports the Popcorn Board, an industry-funded marketing and research operation.

Popcorn consumption plunged in the early 1950s, according to the board, when television distracted audiences from movie theaters. It recovered, though, when viewers established new snack habits in front of the tube.

Today, Americans eat 17 billion quarts of popped corn or 54 quarts per person a year, the board estimates. The U.S. leads the world in popcorn production.

Enthusiasm for zea mays everta, its scientific name, dates back centuries in North America. “Cortez found the Aztecs in Mexico adorned in popcorn necklaces and ceremonial headdresses in 1519,” the board reports on its website, and “French explorers in the Great Lakes region watched Iroquois popping corn in pottery crocks with heated sand.” Archeological digs in west-central New Mexico’s Bat Cave turned up tiny ears of popcorn almost 5,600 years old.

With such epic history, popcorn oughta be in pictures. But, outside of a memorable scene in Barry Levinson’s 1982 film “Diner” — involving Mickey Rourke’s character, a date and a surprise in the popcorn box — its most prominent onscreen appearance comes in the 1953 animated concession promo, “Let’s All Go to the Lobby.”

If you’re eating movie-theater popcorn, chances are it comes from Preferred Popcorn LLC, a Nebraska-based company that supplies theater concessions nationwide and is one of the nation’s top popcorn producers.

Norman Krug heads the multistate company based in Chapman; in January, he also began a three-year term on the federally authorized Popcorn Board.

Krug, 57, learned to grow popcorn from his father, Robert, who raised it commercially for 45 years and was “one of the pioneers” in the industry, the son says. In 1998, Norm Krug brought together two other local farmers and a cooperative to buy a processing plant in Chapman and start Preferred Popcorn.

Sales volume in theaters depends “on how many people come to the movies,” Krug says. “I don’t have any scientific research to back this up, but it appears that people consume more popcorn at good family movies” — those with PG ratings – “than at scary movies.” That probably rules out the bloodbath that is “Django Unchained.”

Preferred Popcorn exports more than half of its yield to 55 countries, of which Mexico ranks as the biggest market. That country also is the largest outlet for U.S. popcorn growers as a whole – no surprise, given Mexico’s close proximity and its long cultural affinity for the stuff.

On a trip there a few years ago, “I was pleased to see they were serving our popcorn at the Mayan ruins,” Krug says. “The best news for our industry is that exports are growing,” he continues, adding that consumption is increasing in China and elsewhere in Asia.

Preferred Popcorn contracts with roughly 100 growers, primarily in Nebraska and Indiana, where it has processing plants, and in Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky and South Dakota. Nebraska is the nation’s top popcorn producer, followed by Indiana. Those states provide the optimal conditions for growing popcorn: rich soil, good drainage and warm, sunny summers.

Photo courtesy of Popcorn Board

To realize its full potential, popcorn needs more heat — from a popcorn machine,microwave or stovetop kettle. The drop of water in each kernel expands into steam, pressuring and transforming the surrounding starch until, when the interior reaches nearly 350 degrees, it explodes the hull and releases the steam. “The soft starch inside the popcorn becomes inflated and spills out, cooling immediately,” the Popcorn Board’s website explains. “… A kernel will swell 40-50 times its original size.”

Americans are going back to basics with this process, Krug says. “We’re seeing some shift from microwave popcorn to whole kernels” prepared the traditional way — on the stovetop, with a little oil in a covered kettle. “It seems like it’s coming back.”

That may be a consumer response to negative publicity for microwave popcorn. Last year, a Colorado man won $7.2 million in a lawsuit after contracting “popcorn lung” from eating it daily for 10 years. By 2008, the nation’s major producers of microwave popcorn had eliminated the offending butter-flavor chemical, diacetyl. A University of Minnesota study last year linked diacetyl to Alzheimer’s disease. Other experts have flagged microwave popcorn because of the bags, which are treated with chemicals to resist fire and prevent oil leaks.

Movie popcorn got a bad rating in 2009 from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which called it as menacing as Godzilla for some chains’ use of coconut oil (high in saturated fat) for popping and artificial “buttery” oil for topping. The consumer advocacy group hasn’t done a subsequent update, a spokeswoman said.

Krug describes popcorn as “a good, wholesome snack. It depends on what people put on it, and we can’t control that.”

A whole grain and member of the grass family, popcorn is good for grazing if you go easy on the fat and salt. A cup of air-popped corn contains 31 calories and oil-popped has 55, according to the Popcorn Board. It’s also high in fiber and its crunchy hull is rich in antioxidants.

Krug thought he’d tire of eating popcorn when he got into the business, he says, but he still snacks on it almost daily. “I go out to see movies,” Krug says, “and I order popcorn every time.”

For him, it gets two thumbs up.

Makes 1 quart

Chili Lime Popcorn Snack Mix

Chili powder perks up this popcorn mix. Brewer’s yeast powder, or nutritional yeast, can be found in health food aisles or stores. The recipe comes from the Popcorn Board, a trade organization./ Photo courtesy of the Popcorn Board

Ingredients

  • 1 quart popped popcorn
  • 1 teaspoon brewer’s yeast powder
  • 1 teaspoon lime juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder, or to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Instructions

Preheat oven to 300 F. Spread popcorn on a baking sheet.

Sprinkle yeast powder, lime juice, chili powder and salt over popcorn. Bake about 7 minutes and toss ingredients just before serving. Serve warm.

Makes 3 quarts

Sea Salt Caramel Popcorn

A sprinkling of coarse sea salt boosts the flavor of this caramel corn. The Popcorn Board, a Chicago-based trade group, provided the recipe. / Photo courtesy of the Popcorn Board.

Ingredients

  • 2 quarts popped popcorn
  • 1 1/2 cups pecan halves
  • 1/2 cup almonds
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter or margarine
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt

Instructions

Line a large (17-by-12-inch), rimmed baking pan with foil and spray lightly with cooking spray; set aside. Spray a large bowl (not plastic) with cooking spray and place popcorn and nuts in it.

In a medium saucepan, combine sugar, butter and corn syrup. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Clip on a candy thermometer and boil, stirring occasionally, until temperature reaches 290 F (about 15 minutes). Remove candy thermometer and stir in vanilla.

Pour mixture over popcorn and stir to coat well.

Spread popcorn mixture in an even layer into prepared baking pan. Sprinkle with sea salt. Let cool completely before breaking into pieces to serve. Store in an airtight container.

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10 Responses to Popcorn wins for best grain in a leading snack role

  1. Profile photo of Eddie Ribo
    Eddie Ribo February 20, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    Thank you for sharing this story about popcorn AND for alerting me to the health risks from microwave popcorn bags treated with chemicals. I will never use that method again, it’s back to the old fashioned stove top method for me! Thanks.!

    • Profile photo of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti February 20, 2013 at 6:22 pm #

      Eddie, I make my popcorn the old-fashioned way. My kids have always loved it. Of course, I had to “Italianize” our popcorn. I drizzle melted butter on it and then toss it with freshly grated parmigiano cheese. It’s the best.

      • Profile photo of Eddie Ribo
        Eddie Ribo February 21, 2013 at 11:10 am #

        That sounds delicious! Question: what kind of stovetop pot do you recommend, will my stainless steel All Clad work or do I need something else?

        • Profile photo of Domenica Marchetti
          Domenica Marchetti February 21, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

          Eddie, your stainless-steel All-Clad should work. I use an old Revere Ware stainless steel pot with a copper-dipped bottom, though it is not a heavy-bottomed pot. Works beautifully.

  2. Profile photo of Carol Guensburg
    Carol Guensburg February 21, 2013 at 10:39 pm #

    As the Popcorn Board notes in an undated post on its website, “The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has deemed microwave popcorn safe for human consumption.” You can read more here: http://www.popcorn.org/AboutUs/IntheNews/tabid/74/Default.aspx

    That said, I’m a fan of stovetop popcorn, prepared in a battered, old heavy-bottomed pan. Splash in a little oil, add enough kernels to cover the bottom of the pan, turn on the burner and wait for the merry clatter. I even like day-old popcorn. A much older co-worker at my first job told me her family ate popcorn as a breakfast cereal during the Depression, reviving a practice of American settlers.

  3. elisa February 22, 2013 at 8:16 am #

    I love popcorn! I use it, instead of croutons, on soups, salads and plain chicken broth.

  4. Paul Ellis February 26, 2013 at 5:55 pm #

    Popcorn is popular in the UK at the movies too, although here we still use cinema instead of movies or if you are of a certain age, the slang name was “the flicks”. The last few years have seen popcorn emerge as a popular snack alternative to crisps (sorry “chips”), although still a niche market, last year sales grew 300% according to some reports. Heston Blumenthal who runs one of the top three restaurants in the world (it’s “The Fat Duck” in Bray) has produced Curry Spiced Popcorn for one supermarket, and another supermarket chain has produced cheese and onion flavoured!

    One last tip, do not use a heavy enamelled cast iron pan to cook popcorn, like le creuset, the exploding popcorn can ruin your enamel and even pit it, and yes I did learn that the hard way many, many years ago!!

    • Carol Guensburg February 26, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

      Paul, you’ve got me hankering for curried popcorn. And across the pond, we too have been known to refer to movies as “the flicks” — but hard to say either one with a mouth stuffed with popcorn.

  5. Profile photo of Steve Webb
    Steve Webb February 28, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    Nice one,

    Popcorn is such a versatile thing it’s a shame that it’s just generally regarded as salty or something you put “I CAN Belive It’s Not Butter” on. As I’m sure Paul can attest to theres a predilection for sweet popcorn as well as salty at the pictures in Britain, something I’m surprised hasn’t caught on here. The best way was to do a “half and half” mixing the sweet and salty together. I’ve never been to the fat duck but I did have popcorn soup at Grant Achats Alinea a while back which was excelent.

    Great article Carol, and I’ve got to try the chili lime version.

  6. Profile photo of Andrew Marin
    Andrew Marin March 1, 2013 at 9:16 pm #

    Great to see popcorn finally getting the appreciation it deserves. I love it. I’m that guy you’ll see at the movie theater who’ll buy the largest size and have to get a refill before the first act is over.