As Americans stayed home for another year during the COVID-19 pandemic, popcorn sales steadily rose, especially in the ready-to-eat popcorn/caramel corn category.


Market data

According to IRI (Chicago) data from the past 52 weeks, which ended on May 16, 2021, the ready-to-eat popcorn/caramel corn category was up 8.7 percent, with total sales of $1.6 billion.

Smartfoods, Inc., a Frito-Lay brand, was the leader in the category, with $471 million in sales and a 1.9 percent increase. Skinnypop took second, with $329 million in sales and a nice increase of 13.4 percent, and Angie’s Artisan Treats LLC, which produces Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP, took in $143 million in sales, with an 8.6 percent increase.

Others to note in this category are Cheetos brand RTE popcorn/caramel corn, with a huge increase of 110.7 percent in sales, and Smartfood’s Smart 50 brand, with a 418.7 percent sales increase. G H Cretors, known for its caramel and cheese popcorn mixes, also showed a 32.5 percent increase in sales.

In the microwave popcorn category, the category as a whole experienced an uptick of 2.7 percent, with $884 million in sales, and Conagra Brands took the lead, with $459 million in sales and a 12.6 percent increase. Snyder’s Lance Inc. brought in $187.9 million in sales, with a small decline of 7.6 percent, and private label popcorn brought in $114 million in sales, with a 15.6 percent dip in sales.

Brands to watch are Act II’s microwave popcorn, which had a 32.4 percent increase in sales; Orville Redenbacher, which had a 17.1 percent increase in sales; and SkinnyPop, which increased its sales by 51.8 percent.


Looking back

“Lately we’ve been seeing a lot of customers going back to the basics—caramel, cheese, butter, and salted popcorn. Despite an overall trend in snacks from the past decade of ‘unique, different, and sometimes even exotic,’ lately consumers seem to return to what they know and what is comfortable,” says Michael Horn, president and CEO, AC Horn, Dallas. “In 2020 we all spent so much more time at home, so going back to the basics just makes sense.”

On the equipment side of the business, we continue to see increased demand for automation, record keeping and cleanability, he says.

“Labor costs are on the rise, as are food safety requirements. Food manufacturers require machines that will work reliably with as little manual input as possible. Machinery must be easily cleaned easily, thoroughly, and quickly. They must be able to keep record of their machines’ daily operation for regulatory compliance.”

Joe Boesen, brand manager of innovation on popcorn & salty snacks, Conagra Brands, Chicago, says that the microwave & kernels categories have seen a period of high growth and strong household penetration gains over the last year and a half due to increased in-home snacking behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with increased consumer adoption of home streaming options, for which popcorn is a consumer staple.

“Home entertainment and popcorn are a natural fit, so the growth in streaming created more consumption occasions at home and fueled strong retail sales growth. Versus pre-COVID sales, the microwave popcorn category grew over 17 percent, the kernel popcorn category grew over 20 percent and ready-to-eat popcorn grew over 10 percent. Household penetration also grew by about 1 percentage point in both microwave and kernels popcorn categories, which equates to nearly 1.3 million new households entering these categories,” says Boesen.

Jamie Mavec, marketing manager, Cargill, Minneapolis, says that popcorn fits many of the broader trends playing out in the food and beverage landscape, aligning with consumer desires for snacks perceived as healthy, convenient, label-friendly, and delicious.

“The category has seen a burst of flavor innovation in recent years, especially with the explosion in ready-to-eat popcorn offerings. No longer limited to plain, buttered, and cheese-dusted choices, today’s popcorn is available in an array of flavor profiles for more adventurous palettes, from sweet and savory kettle corn and spicy jalapeno ranch, to indulgent chocolate-drizzled and caramel-coated options. Seasonal flavors have also found their way to store shelves, including the obligatory pumpkin spice,” she says.

2020 was definitely a year to indulge: SNAX-Sational Brands released a few chocolate varieties in 2020, including its Snack Pop Halloween Cookie Pop, made with OREO cookie pieces and topped with orange cream drizzle, and its Candy Pop variety pack, featuring its M&M popcorn, Twix popcorn, and Snickers popcorn, served in portioned snack sizes.

SkinnyPop also released a Birthday Cake-flavored kettle popcorn last year. The popcorn combined flavors of kettle popcorn and birthday cake, and was available for a limited time at Sam’s Club in a party-sized bag.

In addition, Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP launched its Salted Maple Kettle Corn flavor, in 5.5 oz. bags, for consumers who want more flavor exploration beyond its Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn flavor.

However, from a nutrition perspective, consumers largely view popcorn as a guilt-free indulgence, Mavec notes.

“Lighter varieties and on-trend labels like organic, gluten-free, and whole-grain lean into that healthy image. Many leading brands have further leveraged popcorn’s better-for-you persona, with label claims featuring ‘no artificial ingredients’ and ‘non-GMO.’ Popcorn also dials into consumer desires for recognizable ingredients and minimal processing, with ingredient statements that can be as simple as popcorn kernels, oil, and salt,” she adds.

Her colleague Mike Beaverson, senior marketing manager, Cargill Salt, says that popcorn has a reputation as a satisfying and fiber-containing food, since it’s considered by many consumers as a more health-conscious snack option.

“Aligning with that better-for-you positioning, we’ve seen an uptick in brands’ use of sea salt, which our proprietary research finds consumers’ view as a healthier choice, compared to salt,” says Beaverson. “Alongside heightened interest in sea salt, we’re also fielding more requests for help with sodium reduction in popcorn. To address these concerns, we developed Potassium Salt Ultra Fine, a much finer cut of potassium chloride, which provides a superior salty flavor compared to larger particle sizes. It’s flour-like texture delivers significant functional advantages too, with stronger adherence, more rapid solubility and smoother mouthfeel.”

Popcorn oil selection is also important, says John Satumba, Ph.D., global bakery technical lead and regional R&D director for North America, global edible oil solutions, Cargill. “Whether brands offer microwaved or ready-to-eat options, fat or oil selection is key to the finished product’s final quality, impacting flavor, nutrition, shelf life and more. With ready-to-eat products, formulators typically rely on liquid oils to keep oil from leaking out of the bag, while microwavable popcorn requires a hard fat,” he notes.

Oil choices can also accentuate the flavor of the popcorn, Satumba says. “For ready-to-eat products, corn oil often pairs well with sweeter offerings. Other options, like canola and sunflower oil, provide a very neutral profile, perfect for more adventuresome flavors.” Fat and oil choices impact the product’s nutritional profile, too, he adds.

“For ready-to-eat popcorn, Cargill’s Clear Valley high oleic canola oil is low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat, further supporting popcorn’s ‘health halo.’ It also provides excellent shelf life stability due to its high oxidative stability,” Satumba says. “Microwave popcorn, on the other hand, has traditionally relied on hard fats like palm oil, which has higher levels of saturated fats. Still, Cargill has helped customers significantly lower the saturated fat content of these products by creating custom blends that combine palm oil with liquid oils that contain lower levels of saturated fat. These tailored solutions prevent the liquid oil from seeping out of the bag, while offering an improved nutritional profile.”

In 2020, Orville Redenbacher released an “elevated modern health offering” popcorn variety made with 100 percent avocado oil; it will be interesting to see if other snack companies follow suit.


Looking forward

Demand from consumers for clean-label ingredients should continue throughout 2021.

Boesen says that Conagra’s brands—Orville Redenbacher’s, Act II, Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP, and Jiffy Pop—are well-positioned to capture consumer demand during the pandemic and beyond due to modern attributes incorporated to best serve the needs of today’s consumers.

“For example, Orville Redenbacher’s and Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP offer products with no artificial preservatives, flavors or dyes. ‘Nothing Fake’ is called out right on the front of our Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP popcorn bags, so parents know this is a great solution for the whole family,” Boesen says.

Boesen’s prediction is that we will continue to see consumers turn to products that deliver comforting, familiar flavors, such as fresh popped kernels and warm, movie theater butter popcorn that perfectly deliver what consumers would have previously ordered at the movie theater. “Orville Redenbacher’s and Act II products are available in a range of pack sizes, including larger 12-to-18 count multipacks of microwave popcorn or new ‘party size’ ready-to-eat popcorn bags that saw increased consumer adoption during the pandemic due to their superior value and consumers’ desire to stock up and have larger quantities of their favorite snacks on-hand,” he adds.

Satumba says that popcorn companies will continue to have unique needs, and much of Cargill’s work in the category has focused on creating custom solutions for these needs. “By developing custom oil blends, we can deliver solutions that meet our clients’ functional needs and align with consumers’ nutritional expectations. We’ve also developed solutions that support brands’ sustainability goals. As one example, we now are one of North America’s largest suppliers of RSPO-segregated palm oil, enabling us to offer a higher level of sustainably certified product to our customers,” he says.

As demand for different salt used in popcorn ramps up, Beaverson says that Cargill Salt’s new Purified Sea Salt Flour is a unique type of sodium chloride, sifted to the smallest and finest granulations of sea salt crystals. This ultra-fine cut makes it the only sea salt of its kind. “The specialty, powder-like sea salt is ideal for snack topping applications like popcorn. Its small size also offers unique functional benefits, as compared to traditional granular salt options. For example, its ultra-fine cut adheres better to food, resulting in less fall-off and less salt waste,” he notes.

Beaverson also says that the Sea Salt Flour delivers a superior performance, but also has a compelling story: it’s harvested authentically with the power of the sun, wind, and time, at the company’s solar salt ponds in the San Francisco Bay. “Sea Salt Flour’s fine particles provide a faster salty flavor burst by increasing the rate of dissolution in the mouth. This increased perception of saltiness may enable a reduction in sodium and help enhance other flavors.”

As for other 2021 predictions, consumers will continue to spend more time at home this year, as the pandemic is not yet over—and thus spend more time in front of the TV, with a bowl of popcorn in hand.

Boesen says that while the pandemic was a challenging time for consumers, spending more time at home also provided them with an opportunity to explore many new product solutions for themselves and their families. “New households entered the microwave, kernel, and ready-to-eat popcorn categories and signed up for streaming entertainment services,” he says.

“We believe this behavior will be ‘sticky’ in that we expect many consumers who adopted these solutions during the pandemic to continue turning to them, even after the pandemic, especially given the cost advantage of entertaining the whole family at home while enjoying popcorn products, as opposed to the high cost and hassle of a trip to the movie theater,” Boesen predicts.

“In addition, as more workplaces re-open and welcome employees back, ready-to-eat popcorn such as Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP will continue to serve as a preferred snack for on-the-go consumption, fueling continued growth,” says Boesen. “Overall, we believe that the delicious taste, convenience, and benefits of microwave, kernel, and ready-to-eat popcorn, coupled with innovation in pack architecture and flavor, will continue to drive growth across these categories for years to come.”