For many Americans, the new year comes with the annual resolution to improve their health by exercising daily and eating better, including better-for-you snacks. Many people quickly discover that the second course of action is easier—and more fun—than the first, thanks to all the nutritious new products appearing in grocers’ snack aisles. Even enduring favorites like popcorn are sporting healthier ingredients, single-serve sizes and new flavors.

This past holiday season, for instance, some ready-to-eat (RTE) popcorn manufacturers launched popcorn flavors inspired by the tastes of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Gaslamp Popcorn, San Diego, added Peppermint Candy to existing holiday flavors Apple Crumble Pie, Pumpkin Spice Pie and Holiday Cookie, all introduced in 2014. “Grocery chains and consumers let us know that Apple Crumble Pie and Pumpkin Spice Pie are great for before and during Thanksgiving, so they’re kind of the fall flavors,” says Martin Neumann, vice president of sales and marketing, Gaslamp Popcorn. “The Peppermint Candy and Holiday Cookie fall into the holiday season. They’ve all taken off and done really wonderful.”

Despite their decadent names, the flavors don’t add a lot of extra calories to the products and are made with healthier ingredients. “That’s the way we designed them,” Neumann says. “We use real peppermint candies for the Peppermint Candy Popcorn. We sourced candies made with sugar beets rather than red dye. Not only are we watching the calories on the bag, we’re also watching the ingredients on the bag, so they’re as all-natural and healthy as possible. We stay away from artificial colors, artificial dyes and all that.”

The Popcorn Factory’s new holiday offerings last year included Dark Chocolate Cherry Cordial, Cinnamon Sugar and Pumpkin Spice Corn, all of which are air-popped, cholesterol-free and trans-fat-free. “Pumpkin Spice did pretty well and will continue in the line moving forward,” says Alan Petrik, chief operating officer, Inc., Lake Forest, IL, owner of the brand. “It’s one of the flavors that’s gotten traction and is doing very well.”

Petrik adds that the company typically does half its holiday business in custom-filled tins. In early December, its three top-sellers were long-time favorites—butter, cheese and caramel. “But that’s driven by the predominant choice in those tins,” he adds.

Perhaps popcorn manufacturers’ and retailers’ year-end sales figures will show that innovative flavors can give the popcorn category—kernel popcorn, popcorn oil and single-serve microwave popcorn, according to IRI, Chicago—a much-needed boost. According to IRI, Chicago, this category saw a 1.53 percent decrease in dollar sales for the 52 weeks ending Nov. 1, 2015, for sales of $980.64 million.

Kernel popcorn recorded sales of $120.61 million for the period, down 2.6 percent from the previous year, with most manufacturers reporting losses or modest gains. Only Diamond Foods Inc. saw a healthy gain of 15.77 percent for the 52-week period. The same findings were true for kernel popcorn brands, with only four brands seeing double-digit sales increases: Bob’s Red Mill (78.25 percent), Pop Secret Jumbo (24.47 percent), Jolly Time Select (16.16 percent) and Pop Secret (12.4 percent).

Sales of single-serve microwave popcorn for the 52 weeks ending Nov. 1 were also down slightly—1.41 percent—for dollar sales of $839.15 million. ConAgra Foods’ Orville Redenbacher’s brand was the only brand to see significant sales increases for several products: Skinnygirl Microwave Popcorn (458.83 percent), Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popping Corn (216.59 percent) and Orville Redenbacher’s SmartPop! (13.43 percent). Conversely, two of the brand’s single-serve microwave popcorn products also saw the biggest drop in sales for the same prior-year period: Orville Redenbacher’s (-54.63 percent) and Gourmet Naturals (-31.84 percent).

The ready-to-eat popcorn/caramel corn category—classified as a salty snack by IRI—was the only popcorn-related category to see sales increase. Dollar sales for the category for the 52 weeks ending Nov. 1 were $1.05 billion, up 12.60 percent from the same prior-year period. The top five RTE popcorn brands seeing the biggest jump in dollar sales were Werther’s Original (129.99 percent), Smartfood Delight (114.32 percent), Cape Cod (84.78 percent), Skinnygirl (57.67 percent) and Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP (47.17 percent).

The flavors they savor

While popcorn is naturally gluten-free (a continuing consumer trend) and many of today’s popcorns are made with non-GMO corn, natural flavors, no trans fats and other healthier ingredients and processes (such as air popping), it’s the taste that ultimately makes consumers buy them again ... and again. And RTE popcorn manufacturers are giving popcorn lovers plenty of tasty reasons—buttery, sweet, spicy and more—to love their products.

“The most-popular flavor of popcorn remains the regular butter flavor with salt (often sea salt),” says Bob Clark, vice president of marketing, Herr Foods Inc., Nottingham, PA. “Beyond regular, white Cheddar is clearly the most popular of all the flavors. Both regular and white Cheddar are growing rapidly along with the entire category. Some of the newer flavors doing very well combine sweet and salty tastes in varieties such as caramel, kettle and Chicago mix. Our consumer surveys confirm these trends.”

Amanda Henke, co-owner and creative director, Annie B’s, St. Paul, MN, sees similar patterns. “Consumers really love our original caramel popcorn, sea salt caramel popcorn and Triple Treat popcorn. We offer Cheddar and jalapeño Cheddar, as well, both flavors that definitely have their own superfans. We recently merged with a popular local chocolatier, B.T. McElrath, so the requests for a chocolate and caramel popcorn mixture have started rolling in.” The company’s popcorn is also non-GMO and gluten-free, important considerations for consumers seeking better-for-you and gluten-free snacks.

Neumann notes that flavors offering “sweet heat” and “sour tanginess” are also popular among consumers. “People don’t just want heat, they want a flavor to it,” he says. Introduced in 2015, Gaslamp Popcorn’s Sweet Fiesta Lime and Mango Habanero Salsa capture both flavor sensations.

“Millennials like spicier flavors, so those with a little heat are popular,” says Petrik, adding that The Popcorn Factory is launching a new line this spring featuring spicy flavors, including Sriracha, Buffalo Ranch and a new Mesquite BBQ.

“The RTE segment lends itself to a number of options that, quite truthfully, all seem very popular,” says Garry Smith, president, American Pop Corn Co., Sioux City, IA, which makes ready-to-eat, microwave and kernel popcorn under the JOLLY TIME Pop Corn brand. “The cheese, chocolate or drizzled options, as well as some healthy snack mixes, do well.”

As for the microwave popcorn category, Smith says, “Butter still reigns as king, showing that savory remains popular.”

To give microwave popcorn lovers an option to butter, JOLLY TIME recently launched CheddarRiffic Microwave Popcorn, a white Cheddar microwave popcorn. Initial results, Smith says, are “very favorable,” and the company is increasing distribution monthly.

Supplier insight

While popcorn manufacturers are continuing to turn to their ingredient suppliers for popular and trending flavors, many are now also requesting flavors, colors and other ingredients that enable them to meet consumer demand for products that are gluten-free, non-GMO, clean label, all-natural and more.

“For popcorn and all snack seasonings, we are seeing more and more requests for clean label and organic flavor development,” says Delia Croessmann, senior manager, marketing, DairiConcepts L.P., Springfield, MO. “We also get many requests for natural colors and are working with a brilliant color range utilizing natural extracts.” She notes that the company sees the majority of its popcorn flavor requests center around a base of cheese, butter and other dairy flavors, from classic savory flavors to those with a hot-and-spicy edge.

In addition, DairiConcepts’ technical staff can formulate ingredients to fill most any clean-label and/or gluten-free requests, says Croessmann. “Our clean-label, whole-milk-based Ascentra powdered ingredient can also be incorporated into snack seasonings to reduce sodium, while enhancing and rounding out savory flavors,” she explains. “In addition to our foothold with dairy-based savory flavors, our culinary team is constantly developing trendy, sweet popcorn flavors, such as spiced caramel yogurt, Mexican hot chocolate and kettle corn.”

Croessmann says the company is also positioned to support anticipated growth in organic-certified ingredient production. “As most organic-certified foods are also GMO-free, our ingredients can be formulated to meet both these label claims simultaneously,” she says.

Land O’Lakes Ingredients, Arden Hills, MN, has focused on developing products with only natural flavors for the past several years, says Diane Kussy, R&D technical services manager. “Along with our integrated dairy ingredient supply, we have found that natural flavors are easy to work with to develop a targeted flavor,” she explains.

Land O’Lakes Ingredients helps RTE popcorn customers formulate snacks that meet consumer demand for better-for-you snacking by providing a wide range of dairy-based ingredients made with no artificial flavors, no partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) and no monosodium glutamate (MSG), says Kussy.

Wixon Inc., St. Francis, WI, is also receiving more requests from popcorn manufacturers for natural flavors, says AnnMarie Kraszewski, food scientist and lab manager. “Popcorn has its own health halo, so combining it with clean-label seasonings is a bonus for consumers,” she adds. “In addition to the flavor profiles, manufacturers would use healthier oils that would have the same shelf stability.”

As for customer flavor requests, “Cheese (Cheddar or white Cheddar) is always popular,” says Kraszewski, “but we are seeing more with chiles, sweet/fruity or gourmet cheeses in the RTE category.”

Popcorn manufacturers can build product appeal by refining the salty flavor of their products. SaltWorks Inc., Woodinville, WA, offers an extensive selection of all-natural gourmet salts, including 25 varieties of all-naturally-flavored salts, nine smoked sea salts and numerous grain sizes. “They vary from manufacturers looking for a better sea salt supplier to those looking for specialty salts, such as Ancient Ocean Himalayan Pink, and innovative flavors,” says Naomi Novotny, president. “High-end gourmet flavors have now made their way to the snack aisle, from black-and-white truffle salts and our all-natural smoked salts, such as the Salish Alderwood Smoked Sea Salt, to another very popular trend—our spicy Fusion flavored salt varieties, such as Sriracha and Habanero Heat.”

The company’s all-natural salts also enable customers to create products that align with the all-natural food trend, says Novotny. “Clean label in snack foods—and prepared and packaged foods overall—are increasingly important to consumers,” she explains. “Since our salts are all-natural and unrefined, they really hit many of the ‘healthy snack’ trends. Our smoked and flavored varieties are a great way to add impactful, natural flavor—and it’s always a plus that salt has no calories!”

Looking ahead

The outlook for the popcorn category is a mixed bag, as sales of kernel and microwave popcorn continue to decline and RTE popcorn sales continue to jump.

“Popcorn is very versatile and a great canvas for new flavors, mix-ins and healthy additions, as well as rich ones,” says Henke. “With its great texture and increasingly convenient availability, I see no limits to the reach of this terrific snack.”

Neumann is equally optimistic: “I still see the ready-to-eat popcorn category growing tremendously—in the 20–30 percent range. Some people are already enjoying it. Others are learning about it and loving it. It’s still trending high.”

According to Clark, consumer demand for better-for-you snacking, combined with their desire for indulgent flavors, will continue to drive growth in the category. “Popcorn is a fun and tasty snack that delivers a great-tasting snacking experience while, at the same time, being perceived as ‘lighter’ than many other snack options,” he says. “This combination of great taste and a light and fluffy product texture delivers indulgence, while maintaining control of calories. Calling out gluten-free and non-GMO verification are helpful in gaining placement in better-for-you snacking sections of retail stores and natural foods channels.”

Smith is more circumspect about the category’s outlook. “We anticipate slowing growth of ready-to-eat popcorn, which has exploded the last couple of years,” he says. “We also hope for a flattening out of microwave popcorn sales after a few years of sales decline.”

Petrik agrees that, at some point, the percentage of RTE popcorn sales will trail off, but the category will still continue to grow. “People aren’t done inventing new products,” he explains. “We’re certainly not done creating new recipes and formulas. If I were in the pretzel business or chip business, I’d be watching what’s happening with popcorn. Distribution is wide open, and I think the mindset of the consumer is that ‘This is good for us, it’s easy to eat, and it’s simple.’ There’s nothing stopping it right now.”