According to findings by Rabobank, outlined in its Jan. 2015 report “The Popcorn Blockbuster,” popcorn is experiencing a renaissance. Once considered an unhealthy movie-time junk food, popcorn is now considered among consumers—especially choosy millennials—to be an appealing, healthy snack. Not only does it often align with their desire for natural, organic or gluten-free snacks, but popcorn manufacturers and brands are also proving their willingness to experiment with on-trend flavors, offering new and exciting varieties inspired by ethnic cuisines.

Rabobank notes that it’s the ready-to-eat (RTE) popcorn market that’s making the most noise. But microwave products are also starting to enter the better-for-you, all-natural popcorn fray.

Market data

Data from IRI, Chicago shows a strong—and growing—RTE popcorn market, having experienced a 15.15 percent rise in dollar sales over the past year, reaching $1.1 billion in sales. Performers of note include PepsiCo (up 21.49 percent to $396.7 million), SkinnyPop (up 39.90 percent to $193.4 million), Angie’s Artisan Treats (up 29.80 percent to $65.1 million) and Cornfields (up 96.46 percent to $16.6 million). Private label also saw gains, up 24.01 percent to $55.7 million.

PepsiCo benefits primarily from category-leading Frito-Lay brand Smartfood, which was up 27.56 percent in dollar sales to $271.9 million, per IRI. The Cornfields brand G.H. Cretors was up 85.56 percent to $15.7 million. Popcornopolis saw significant growth of 87.86 percent, responsible for $11.1 million in sales.

According to IRI, dollar sales of microwave popcorn dipped 3.55 percent to $817.3 million. Category leader Pop Secret, a Diamond Foods brand now owned by Snyder’s Lance, dropped less than the category average, slipping just 1.30 percent in dollar sales to $163.2 million.

A breakthrough brand in microwave popcorn for the year was Quinn Foods, up 62.06 percent in dollar sales to $2.0 million. The company offers all-natural, organic microwave popcorn, a strong point of differentiation for the segment.

Looking back

For many industry insiders, the RTE popcorn market is booming thanks to brands’ willingness to pump adventurous flavor into a snack that is practically a blank canvas for such seasonings.

“In the popcorn category, we’ve seen a lot of evolution in product development specifically around flavors,” says Bart Wolkerstorfer, marketing manager, Land O’Lakes Ingredients, Arden Hills, MN. “The common flavors we all know and love—butter, Cheddar cheese and caramel—have now evolved to bold, savory, ethnic, exotic, sweet and spicy flavors to accommodate the ever-changing palates of consumers.”

Pair this with the better-for-you trends sweeping the food industry as a whole, and it’s no surprise that ingredient suppliers are now offering adventurous seasonings for popcorn that also appeal to the clean-label trend. Land O’Lakes, for example, introduced the CheddarChroma line of cheese powders, formulated without FD&C colors. The line features 3-Pepper CheddarChroma, which is made with jalapeño pepper, aged cayenne, chili pepper and other spices blended with sour cream, which Wolkerstorfer says “adds a little heat and spice that consumers are looking for.”

SkinnyPop recently expanded its lineup with the addition of Jalapeño and Dusted Dark Chocolate flavors. G.H. Cretors now offers Chile Jalapeno White Cheddar and Dill Pickle flavors. The latter flavor has seen good levels of success in the chips category.

Angie’s Artisan Treats borrowed a classic flavor from the chips category for its new BoomChickaPop Sweet Barbeque popcorn. Angie’s also offers a Sweet & Spicy BoomChickaPop flavor, which combines garlic, cayenne pepper, cumin and paprika notes. Snyder’s-Lance Kettle Brand sells Sriracha and Jalapeño popcorn.

Snyder’s-Lance also recently ventured into bold flavor territory via its Cape Cod brand, now offering Roasted Black Garlic popcorn in an RTE lineup that also includes White Cheddar, Sea Salt and Salted Caramel.

Changes in popcorn seasonings are yielding changes on the production line, says Nathan Lee, vice president of sales, PPM Technologies, Newberg, OR—specifically because smaller brands demand the flexibility to make quick changes to their formulations based on consumer desires for different flavors. “We have observed an increase in seasoning system inquiries, as customers continue to improve their manufacturing processes and add new flavor offerings for consumers,” he says. “Increased consumer demands for new product tastes are driving the need for fast seasoning changeovers during production.”

To that end, the company recently launched a Spicy seasoner, which not only accommodates such changeovers, but also “enhances accuracy for seasoning application rate control so that the customer experience when sampling the product is consistent,” adds Lee.

Quinn Foods made waves with the introduction of its Farm-to-Bag RTE popcorn line in flavors like White Cheddar, Kale & Sea Salt, Classic Sea Salt and California Olive Oil. This strategic move toward clear product transparency lets consumers trace batch numbers on bags to specific farms across the U.S. The company’s website also includes detailed information about all of the growers and suppliers for its products.

Quinn is also changing the face of microwave popcorn with its clean-label products, which have consumers add seasoning to the products after popping. Flavors include Real Butter & Sea Salt, Vermont Maple Kettle Corn, Real White Cheddar, Parmesan & Rosemary and Just Sea Salt.

Looking forward

According to the Rabobank findings, smaller companies are experiencing the most growth in the ready-to-eat popcorn industry, likely because they have the opportunity to innovate quickly and have a greater personal connection to their consumers.

At Gaslamp Popcorn, Beaumont, CA, the key lies in the transparency it is able to offer its shoppers. “Shoppers are interested in the story behind the brands they support,” says Martin Neumann, sales director for the company. “This speaks to their need for transparency.” Gaslamp Popcorn capitalizes on its California roots by heavily featuring its story on its website and in its product launches. Later this year, the brand will launch Malibu Mix, a mix of the brand’s signature Sea Salt and Olive Oil, White Cheddar, and Kettle Corn flavors.

But transparency doesn’t end with company values. Consumers also want clean labels—and therein lies the challenge, says Wolkerstorfer, especially in a ready-to-eat popcorn market that often relies on processed powders for its flavors. “As an ingredient supplier, we work with manufacturers to meet those demands by formulating cheese powders and dairy seasonings that contain no partially hydrogenated oils, no artificial flavors and no FD&C colors,” he says. “Our products can also be made halal or kosher to help meet the end consumer’s dietary restrictions.”

Neumann sees an opportunity for children’s popcorn offerings going forward, specifically because “research shows that households with children snack more frequently and in larger quantities,” he says. “By innovating to accommodate their needs, popcorn brands can put themselves top-of-mind to these shoppers,” he adds, specifically by rolling out new flavors and innovations, or even by suggesting new and exciting ways to use existing products, such as in creative recipes for kids.

Additional opportunities for growth include blending newfound exotic flavors with old favorites, to create a whole new snacking experience, says Wolkerstorfer, such as blending cheese or ranch flavors with global ones. “We see these unique flavor combinations, in addition to clean-label product offerings, as the key to growth within the category going forward,” he adds. “The ready-to-eat popcorn market is experiencing rapid growth and is forecasted to continue growing over the next few years.”