Saturday (January 19) is National Popcorn Day to honor what could arguably be called the world’s oldest snack.
Corn was first domesticated about 10,000 years ago in what is today known as Mexico, however, popping the kernels only became popular during the 19th Century.
Originally known as Pearls or Nonpareil, mass consumption didn’t take off until 1885, after Chicago candy store owner Charles Cretors invented the first steam-powered popcorn maker.
For the movies
The machine, which had a gasoline burner, was mobile and allowed popcorn vendors to roam the streets. The popularity of these vendors grew at approximately the same time that movies burst onto the scene and vendors could often be found near the crowds, especially outside of theaters.
This gave birth to the tradition of popcorn being a favorite movie snack.
In 1893, German brothers Fred and Louis Rueckheim launched Cracker Jack – a molasses-flavored, caramel-coated blend of popcorn and peanuts that is today owned by Frito-Lay – at the Chicago World’s Fair.
During the Great Depression, popcorn retained its popularity as it was inexpensive at five cents a bag, but it also became a source of income for many struggling farmers as a secondary crop.
Enter the microwave
However, its popularity really peaked during World War II when sugar rations diminished candy production.
Before 1912, less than 19,000 acres (7,700 hectares) of American farmland were dedicated to growing popcorn, but this was changed with the electric popcorn machine and the microwave oven.
In 1945, Percy Spencer applied microwave energy to popcorn and found that it popped – his discovery led to the development of the microwave oven.
The first patent for a microwave popcorn bag was issued to General Mills in 1981, and consumption increased by tens of thousands of pounds in the years following.
According to Statista, 232.34 million Americans consumed popcorn products in 2018, with it projected to increase to 235.66 million in 2020.
By volume, popcorn is America’s most favorite snack food.
A truly healthy snack
With its seemingly magical seed-to-snack transformation with just a little heat; its versatility to incorporate a melange of flavors; its portability; and the fact that it strikes a chord with the budget-minded, it’s easy to understand why popcorn has remained so popular over time.
But best of all, at the heart of the kernel is a healthful wholegrain.
Popcorn is high in fiber, naturally low in fat and calories, gluten-free and non-GMO, which ticks all the boxes for today’s health conscious consumer.
It is endorsed by Weight Watchers and the American Dental Association, and the American Cancer Society recognizes the benefits of its high fiber content in possibly preventing cancer.
The National Today data science team surveyed 1,000 Americans about their popcorn-eating traditions.
92% of respondents said they love popcorn.
40.82% said they like it sweet, 37.76% said they prefer it savory and 21.43% said they want it plain.
However, butter is the most popular flavor (30.90%), followed by white cheese (16.20%) and then caramel corn (15.80%).
Top 10 flavors
- White cheese
- Caramel corn
- Kettle corn
- Cheddar cheese
- Turtle – covered in peanut butter caramel and chocolate chips
- Zebra – drizzled with white and dark chocolate
- Red velvet – covered in white chocolate and red velvet cake crumbs
While both men and women like popcorn equally, 30% of women are more likely to choose kettle corn.
Top 3 brands
When it came to brands, Orville Redenbacher was the biggest catcher of popcorn devotees (53%). Diamond Foods’ Pop Secret was the second most popular brand (42%) followed by North American microwave popcorn Act II (34%).