Low in calories, high in fiber—popcorn may just be the perfect natural snack. Of course, that doesn’t stop manufacturers from trying to up the ante by enhancing all the whole grain has to offer. Now, popcorn can be found competing with chips, pretzels and even candy in the snacking Olympics.

Many companies are finding that the way to enhance their popcorn products is to mix the kernels with other unique—and sometimes unusual—ingredients. Competing in the chocolate-added category Too Haute Cowgirls, Carbondale, Colo., creates a creative popcorn confection called Have Bacon Will Travel.

“It starts with a maple syrup twist on our classic caramel corn recipe and includes large premium pecans, real hickory smoked bacon and a drizzle of milk chocolate,” says Amy Tarrant, co-owner. “We’re having fun with bold flavors and unique combinations like bacon and chocolate and chili to appeal to adventurous palettes.”

Tarrant boasts that the Have Bacon Will Travel selection is the company’s sprint race gold medalist, as its retail partners say the combination is flying off the shelves quickly after its recent launch.

Bacon isn’t the only distinctive ingredient found in Too Haute Cowgirls’ corny confections. Orange-spiced granola can be found in its End of the Trail Mix, while espresso beans make an appearance in its Cowgirl Coffee creation.

“Our products are fun, delicious and meant to be an indulgence,” says Tarrant. “Sometimes we’re a candy bar and sometimes we’re a sweet and salty snack.”

Other popcorn-centric creations include Fistful of Fleur de Sel, made with toffee, sea salt, caramel corn and dark chocolate. Tarrant states this confection is a marathon gold medalist as it has been Too Haute Cowgirls’ biggest seller for almost three years. Fistful of Fleur de Sel joins The Good, The Bad and The Peanut Butter, Mutton Bustin’ Milk Chocolate, Blisters on my Buttercrunch, Chili Con Chocolate and Bareback Buttercrunch in the company’s line of popcorn confections. Too Haute Cowgirls also offers a seasonal creation called Doc’s Holliday Mint.

“[It’s] our signature caramel corn, enrobed in white chocolate and dusted with candy cane pieces and edible ‘champagne powder’ from the Rocky Mountains,” explains Tarrant.

Mixing it up

FunkyChunky Inc. also creates sweet and savory snacking combinations with popcorn at the heart of its mixes. Sea Salt Caramel Popcorn is the latest creation joining the Edina, Minn., company’s offerings of sweet-and-salty snack mixes.

Tore Swenson, director of sales and marketing, boasts that this mix of caramel corn, caramel, cashews, sea salt and milk and dark chocolate drizzle is the gold medal standout of FunkyChunky’s mixes.

“It is a decathalon winner,” says Swenson, adding that the Sea Salt Caramel Popcorn mix wins in 10 categories: on-trend; all-natural; made in America; sweet; salty; chewy; crunchy; variety of size selections; low in saturated fats; and a “perfect gift for any holiday.”

Sea Salt Caramel Popcorn isn’t the only mix FunkyChunky offers with popcorn in the equation. The company also has Chip-Zel-Pop, a mix of potato chips, pretzels, caramel popcorn, caramel and dark, milk and white chocolate; Candy Cane Popcorn, caramel popcorn, glazed macadamia nuts, peppermint white chocolate and crushed candy canes; Chocolate Popcorn; and Caramel Corn.

Trying to compete in the everyday snacking category, FunkyChunky packages its creations in smaller on-the-go bags. “We are targeting the on-the-go customers with our small FunkyChunky snack bags,” says Swenson. “We have a 2-oz. bag that is the perfect grab-and-go snack.”

That original winning combo

Adding chocolate or caramel are just a couple of ways manufacturers are making sweet-and-salty popcorn combinations, but consumers still can’t resist the original sweet-and-salty popcorn combination, kettle corn. Players from all over have joined the kettle corn competition, and it’s a close race for the gold.

“We think that the simple ingredient statement of sweet-and-salty popcorn combined with its lighter taste has hit all the right buttons with consumers,” says Mark Singleton, vice president of marketing and sales for Rudolph Foods. The Lima, Ohio-based company recently acquired Gaslamp Popcorn Co. and is relaunching its three most popular selections, starting with Kettle Corn this summer.

“We did some reformulations to make the ingredients all-natural,” says Singleton. “Our sweet-and-salty popcorn contains all-natural, nonGMO popcorn, pure cane sugar and sea salt.” The product is also gluten-free.

Singleton is excited about the product and its place in the popcorn industry. “It’s a great item that is hundreds of years old that has been brought back to a new group of consumers,” he states. “The neatest thing about what we do is for a couple of bucks we can really make someone’s day.”

Kettle corn is a good opportunity to not only create a sweet-and-salty snack, but also make it a clean-label creation that consumers feel good about purchasing. Oogie’s Snacks, LLC, Denver, Colo., is striving to make its popcorn offerings as clean as can be.

“We spent two years working on our Original Kettlecorn to ensure that it would be considerably different and better than other offerings,” says Eric Thier, president. “From inception, we were focused on creating the healthiest items possible with the cleanest ingredient decks we could possibly put together.”

The Original Kettlecorn is the flagship selection for Oogie’s to explore further sweet popcorn options.

“As we move into sweet flavors, we are incorporating raw materials such as non-GMO sunflower oils and evaporated cane sugars,” says Thier.

While it dabbles in sweet, Oogie’s has been thriving in creating savory popcorn options including Cracked Pepper and Asiago, Hatch Chili Con Queso, Movie Lovers Butter, Romano and Pesto, Smoked Gouda, Spicy Chipotle and Lime, Sun-Dried Tomato and Parmesan and White Cheddar.

Many popcorn manufacturers are experimenting with new flavor infusions for their products. KLN Family Brands, Perham, Minn., is no exception as it manages both the NutHeads Chocolate Factory and Vic’s Gourmet Popcorn brands.

“All-natural, organic, healthy eating, unique flavors, inclusions and indulgent items are the buzz right now in popcorn,” says Justin Henke, general manager for KLN’s NutHeads Chocolate Factory. “At NutHeads Chocolate Factory, we just launched a new line at the Sweets & Snacks show called Kookamunga Crunch.”

Kookamunga Crunch is a sweeter snack item featuring caramel corn, butter glaze, almonds and pecans. The company is also looking to expand into a healthier selection of its sweet popcorn offerings.

“We’re in the process of expanding this family to include some healthier options with our fruit-infused kettle corn,” says Henke. “The three flavors will be cranberry, blueberry and apple.”

KLN Family Brands also explores the savory side of popcorn through the Vic’s Gourmet Popcorn brand.

“We have launched some new exciting flavors such as Cinnamon, Pumpkin Spice and Cheesy Jalapeno under our Vic’s line,” says Henke. Also in the line are Yellow Cheddar, White Cheddar, Caramel, Kettle Corn, White (Full Salt), White (Half Salt) and Butter in the Original line and White (Full Salt), White (Half Salt), Cheddar Cheese, White Cheddar, Caramel, Fat Free Caramel and Applewood Smoked Cheddar in its Lite line.

“We also target dieters in our Vic’s line by having air-popped popcorn, half salt options and all-natural ingredients,” says Henke.

Fruit-infused creations are popping up with other companies as well in an attempt to create healthier snack options. Healthy Products International Inc., Mississauga, Ont., is exploring the sweeter side of popcorn with its Krazee Korn line.

“Our ‘candied-style’ or ‘candy-like’ popcorn introduced at the Sweets & Snacks show in Chicago earlier this month does not fit the stereotypical definition of candy,” says Mark Stever, president and creative overseer.

With less than 2 g. of fat and no sugar, the Krazee Korn line is expected to launch with Cherry, Banana and Blueberry varieties.

“Popcorn is the ultimate healthy snack,” says Stever. “This combined with a ‘candied-like’ coating that acts as a functional food makes it an absolute winner.”

Competing in multiple events

As many snack manufacturers are already showing, sweet isn’t necessarily the only event in the popcorn Olympics. Companies are getting a little hot and spicy with their corn creations, like the American Pop Corn Co., Sioux City, Iowa, makers of Jolly Time popcorn.

“We just launched a Chipotle Cheddar microwave popcorn product that has been taken by HEB and will be introduced at other selected accounts later this fall,” says Garrett Smith, president. “By introducing new and unique flavors, we hope to bring some new consumers to the popcorn aisle.”

 Other unique options in the Fun Flavors line include KettleMania, a kettle corn popcorn, The Big Cheez, a cheddar cheese-flavored popcorn, and Mallow Magic, which includes a hint of marshmallow sweetness.

On-the-go snacking is a prevalent consumer demand in the snack market. ConAgra Foods’ Orville Redenbacher brand is clearing all the daily hurdles to bring its unique flavor combinations to consumers.

 “With a growing number of consumers expecting snacks to satisfy immediate hunger and serve as mini-meals, we see on-the-go snacking as increasingly relevant to the modern lifestyle,” says Dan Skinner, manager, public relations and social media.

The Naperville, Ill.-based company’s Ready-to-Eat Gourmet Popcorn boasts larger and fluffier kernels in four unique varieties: Farmhouse Cheddar; Sharp White Cheddar; Classic Kettle Corn; and Signature BBQ.

 “Whether you’re craving sweet or savory, this snack is perfect on-the-go and offers a number of benefits for the health-conscious consumer,” says Skinner.

At between 140 and 160 calories per serving, the popcorn is 100% whole-grain and contains 0 g. of trans-fats.

“It answers consumers’ demands for satisfying and convenient snack options with bold flavor,” says Skinner. “From Olympic athletes to everyday superstars, Orville Redenbacher’s Ready-to-Eat Gourmet Popped Corn is the snack to fuel a gold-medal-worthy day.”

Popcorn creators are competing in several events from sweet to savory, salty to spicy. It’s up to consumers to choose their gold-medal favorites.