The seed first popped by Native Americans has sailed through upheaval in the entertainment industry and ever-shifting dietary trends to enter an apparent “third golden age” as America’s favourite snack.
Sales of ready-to-eat popcorn and caramel corn rose 16.9% from February 2016 to February 2017, spurring innovation with popcorn chips, cakes and other spin-off products.
Last week Disneyland launched a $15 glow-in-the-dark popcorn bucket based on Oogie Boogie, the villain in The Nightmare Before Christmas, which prompted hour-long queues at popcorn carts and a secondhand market on eBay.
Popcorn sales peak in the fall, and October is officially “national popcorn poppin’ month”. The association with film, however, is year-round.
“Popcorn is still the most popular item on the menu for moviegoers, along with soda,” said Patrick Corcoran, a spokesman for the National Association of Theater Owners.
Some cinemas offer more elaborate fare such as gourmet brownies, vegan sandwiches and high-end coffee because people wanted to see but not necessarily consume them, said Corcoran. “One owner told me they didn’t really sell but that people liked the feeling they were there. The prime driver was still soda and popcorn.”
When the Star Wars franchise rebooted, theater owners across the US “stocked up like crazy”, said Corcoran. “Bags and bags of it lining their corridors and into their offices.”
Hollywood has just endured its worst summer box office in a decade so theatre popcorn sales have likely dipped – but consumption of the seed, a type of corn kernel which expands and pops when heated, is booming elsewhere thanks to the microwave, streaming television and trends towards wholegrain, gluten-free diets.
“We still associate it with movies and good times,” said Wendy Boersema Rappel, of the Popcorn Board, a Chicago-based non-profit funded by US popcorn processors. “America has grown up with popcorn. It’s part of our history, part of who we are as Americans when it comes to having fun.”
Americans consume 14bn quarts (13.2bn litres) of popped popcorn annually, or 43 quarts per man, woman and child, according to the Popcorn Board. Almost three-quarters is eaten at home, the rest in theaters, stadiums, schools and elsewhere.
The 16.9% rise in sales of ready-to-eat popcorn translated into 160m pounds (72.5m kilos) sold, pushing annual revenue to $1.05bn, said David Walsh of Snac International, the snack industry’s trade organisation.
“Ready-to-eat popcorn as a category is exploding due to its appeal as a premium snack, using healthier oils, unique salts and flavours and premium corn,” said Walsh. “Popcorn is seen as a better-for-you base capable of carrying a host of innovative flavours.”
The Aztecs used corn as food and adornment for ceremonial headdresses, necklaces and on statues of deities. The industrial revolution and the advent of big sports events and movies popularised popcorn in the US, especially during the Depression, said Patrick Evans-Hylton, a chef and author of a book about popcorn.
“Popcorn was really an affordable luxury. For five cents you could get a bag big enough to share with someone and escape your troubles for a while. That’s when the snack became part of the DNA of being American.”
Sales in theatres fell in the 1950s when the spread of television hit cinema attendance. “The second golden age really began in early 1980s with microwaves. A renaissance born of convenience,” said Evans-Hylton.
The spread of cable and streaming services like HBO and Netflix provided additional incentive whether watching on huge TVs or handheld devices. “More opportunity – or excuses – to eat it at home,” said Boersema Rappel.
Health concerns have at times dented enthusiasm. A lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans was nicknamed popcorn lung because of an association with diacetyl butter-like flavorings. Popcorn processors started phasing out diacetyl in 2007.
The use of palm oil in movie theatre popcorn caused a separate outcry in the 1990s. Cinemas offered healthier options but in places that backfired. “Audiences hated it, all but rebelled, so [some theatres] went back to popcorn popped in oil,” said Corcoran, of the theatre owners’ association.
Popcorn – at least that non-cinema popcorn – is now considered healthy because it is a non-GMO, gluten-free wholegrain naturally high in fibre and low in fat and calories – 30 calories a cup if air-popped.
“We’re now in a third golden age because popcorn is seen as not only affordable and available but also a true, nutritious snack,” said Evans-Hylton. As a food writer who ate out all the time, his weight ballooned to more than 400lb. He slimmed down to less than 200lb thanks in part to popcorn.