Revised October, 2018.
Although evidence of popcorn (Zea mays everta) seeds has been discovered in ancient ruins, the development, production, and use of popcorn is generally a product of the United States. Popcorn was produced by early Native Americans, and most of the world’s popcorn is produced in the United States. Popcorn has become one of the most popular U.S. snacks.
Early varieties of popcorn can be traced back thousands of years. North American explorers observed Native American tribes eating popcorn and using it in necklaces and headdresses. European settlers served popcorn as a breakfast cereal with milk or cream. However, popcorn did not become commercially popular until the Great Depression because it was a low priced snack. During World War II, much of the U.S. sugar supply was diverted to the war effort. Hence, candy manufacturing was greatly curtailed, and popcorn was used as a substitute by many consumers.
Domestic popcorn demand peaked in the early 1990s and has remained relatively steady since. U.S. per capita consumption averages 42 quarts of popped popcorn per year. (2017) For nearly 20 years starting in 1970, popcorn sales increased 2% to 8% annually
Domestic popcorn sales accelerated in the 1980s with the advent of microwaveable popcorn. By 1995, microwave popcorn accounted for 65% of all popcorn sales. The market share increased to 72% by 1999. More recently, consumers’ tastes appear to be shifting from popcorn to other processed snack foods. Retail sales of potato chips, nuts and seeds, and corn chips now outpace popcorn.
Nearly all of U.S. popcorn production is contracted with processors. Because of contractual arrangements and thin markets, most popcorn is produced under irrigation. More than 80% of U.S. production is consumed domestically. Although popcorn is often associated with consumption in movie theaters and at sporting events, away-from-home consumption represents only one-third of total popcorn consumption.
The Popcorn Promotion, Research, and Consumer Information Act was signed in 1996. The Act authorizes the Popcorn Board to collect assessments from those processors with annual production exceeding 4 million pounds. The assessment rate is $0.06/hundredweight. The rate may be lowered or raised but cannot exceed $0.08/hundredweight. Collected funds are used to strengthen popcorn's competitive position by maintaining, developing, and expanding popcorn markets. Most funds are used for generic promotion, the provision of consumer information, and investments in market and related research.
Popcorn was produced by 1,040 farms on over 218,461 acres during 2012 (most recent data). Popcorn production totaled 785.7 million pounds. Nebraska is the top popcorn-producing state and produced 353.7 million pounds of shelled popcorn, or 44% of all popcorn production. Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio are also top producers of popcorn.
Popcorn varieties are quite different from either sweet corn or field corn varieties. White, yellow, red, and black kernel varieties are available, but only white and yellow (both small and large kernels) are grown commercially.
The major factors that influence popcorn quality are kernel moisture, expansion ratios, and popping ratios. High-quality popcorn has a moisture content of 13.5%. Expansion ratios refer to the volume of popped corn per gram of unpopped kernels. Some varieties expand to over 40 cubic centimeters per gram. In addition, kernel moisture and expansion ratio are also related to popping ratios. Popping ratios represent the proportion of kernels that actually pop during the popping process. The highest-quality popcorn has at least a 98% popping ratio.
Because popcorn is a snack food, it faces substantial competition from other products. However, popcorn’s versatility and nutritional attributes helps it compete with other snacks. Popcorn is low in calories and fat, and high in carbohydrates. Weight Watchers® recommends popcorn as a snack for the weight-conscious. The American Dental Association® endorses popcorn as a sugar-free snack. The American Cancer Society® recognizes the benefits of its fiber content.
Within the popcorn industry, competition centers on flavoring and packaging. In the unpopped category, nearly all companies offer microwaveable packaging. This packaging form not only meets consumer convenience demands, but also allows for a variety of flavors.
The popcorn processing sector has three distinct groups: commercial processors, regional processors, and gourmet niche market processors.
The Popcorn Board was established in 1998 to help processors promote and strengthen popcorn markets both domestically and internationally. Processors that produce a minimum of four million pounds of popcorn annually are charged assessments. It is nearly impossible to estimate the number of smaller processors (those under four million pounds) that serve regional or niche markets. Through contracting agreements, many of these processors market their own branded products or contract processing capacity to other wholesale firms.
ConAgra Foods is the largest manufacturer of microwave popcorn in the world with sales in more than 30 countries and branded labels such as ACT II, Orville Redenbacher, Crunch 'n Munch and Jiffy Pop. However, ConAgra closed two popcorn plants in 2007. Within ConAgra’s Foods snack group, Vogel Popcorn is a leading producer and processor of bulk popcorn for U.S. and international markets. The company contracts approximately 50% of total annual popcorn production in the United States and has processing facilities in Iowa, Ohio and Argentina.
The American Popcorn Company produces Jolly Time popcorn brands. Jolly Time was the first branded popcorn, and it remains an industry leader by offering numerous microwaveable and traditional popcorn varieties.
Popcorn, Field Crops: 2012 and 2007, National Ag Statistics Service, USDA.
Popcorn, National Agricultural Library, USDA.
Popcorn Promotion, Research and Consumer Information Order, Ag Marketing Service, USDA.
The Popcorn Board