While popcorn has traditionally benefited from a health halo, new research from Mintel reveals Americans are now embracing flavor innovation, from indulgent to savory, driven by the increasingly popular ready-to-eat (RTE) popcorn category.

Total U.S. retail sales of popcorn increased 32 percent in the last five years to reach an estimated $2.5 billion in 2017, with RTE popcorn leading the flavor innovation wave, growing an impressive 118 percent between 2012-17 to reach $1.1 billion.

With the pre-popped convenience of RTE popcorn offering a perfect medium for a range of flavors and toppings, consumers today are interested in flavor innovation — both familiar and unexpected — in the popcorn category.

While traditional varieties like cheese-flavored (49 percent) and indulgent (e.g. chocolate/caramel covered) (32 percent) are high on the list, popcorn buyers are also interested in purchasing options that are mixed flavor (e.g. salty, indulgent and cheesy popcorn in one bag) (39 percent), have additions mixed in (e.g. dried cranberries or candy) (20 percent) and are seasonal flavored (e.g.pumpkin spice, gingerbread) (12 percent).

Overall, while Americans are interested in indulgent flavors and mix-ins when it comes to popcorn, natural options have their place in the grocery cart as nearly half (45 percent) of popcorn consumers are interested in buying all-natural varieties.

“RTE popcorn brands are finding success not only through an expanding array of creative new flavors, but also by tapping into growing interest in healthy, natural and portable snacks and eating occasions,” says John Owen, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel. “The popcorn segment, and RTE popcorn in particular, is likely to continue benefiting from a generally healthy image as well as its suitability as a medium for a wide range of flavors and toppings. As such, there is an opportunity for brands in other salty snack segments to innovate with unexpected flavors to engage consumers, especially among younger generations who, our research shows, are looking for variety in the salty snack aisle.”