Pop culture: New varieties heat up a classic movie treat
Walking into a theatre lobby filled with the smell of freshly popped corn is part of the magic of moviegoing. When people debate their favorite movie theatres, the quality of their popcorn inevitably comes up. The crunchy treat is currently in the midst of a transformation, as people rethink its health profile and find new ways to season and enjoy the timeless snack.
Charlie Cretors, who runs a family business that goes back over 125 years, is well-versed in the changes the grain has gone through. When his great-grandfather introduced the popcorn machine at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, the popcorn was probably more like “parched corn.” Today, thanks to hybridization, popcorn now has a greater expansion ratio and more fluff. “Today’s corn pops about 50% larger than in 1970. I’m guessing if you’re going back to the 1930s, you’re probably seeing corn that is half of what it is today,” says Cretors, who is CEO of C. Cretors & Company.
Popcorn has changed so much, the machinery is now completely different. “Today, we make a kettle that is four inches deep because of the kernel size. If you go back to the original machinery made in the 1890s, those popper pans are one-and-a-quarter inches deep, because the kernel, when it popped, was very small,” Cretors explains.
The oils used for popping corn have changed too. Charlie Cretors’ great-grandfather would pop the corn in a basket over the fire, and then pour butter over it. But he was frustrated with how unevenly the butter would coat the corn. “He decided he would pop it in the butter. But you can’t pop it in butter because butter won’t take the temperature. So he blended it with lard and clarified butter,” Cretors recalls. While doing some culinary detective work, his brother made a batch using the original recipe some years ago. “It tasted really good. The only thing is that the shelf life isn’t long. In a half-hour, it tastes like old bacon,” Cretors remembers. “It is a very distinctive flavor that was very popular, and part of the original system.” Later, peanut oil became popular because it didn’t require the hassle of blending, only to be usurped by coconut oil as world trade made the commodity more readily available.
Popcorn often shows up in articles proclaiming that large, buttery popcorns can top 1,000 calories and are filled with gobs of saturated fat and salt. But that often hides the true story. Popcorn is a whole grain that contains loads of fiber. One hundred and ten calories of popcorn—about the same amount as a slice of whole-grain bread—can have four grams of fiber, more than that slice of bread. As for the butter? “If you put butter on your toast, you’re probably putting more on than you would in the popcorn tub,” notes Charlie Cretors. “From a practical standpoint, do you eat a large tub of popcorn every day? I might, because I’m around the machinery most of the day, but most people don’t.”
Cretors also points out that in the industry, popcorn is what’s known as a “first-generation snack,” putting it in the company of potato chips (though it wins the health contest versus the fried food). As consumers shy away from more processed foods, which includes second-generation snacks (cheese doodles, which are cornmeal run through an extruder, then coated in cheese slurry) and third-generation snacks (Funyuns and Bugles, which involve turning cornmeal into a pasta, then running it through yet another machine), old-fashioned popcorn starts to sound nice—and imbued with that happy marketing keyword, “natural.”
For people who go to the movie theatre only rarely, popcorn is often a welcome treat, and notions of limiting butter and salt go out the window. But for regular moviegoers, as well as those on restricted diets, healthy choices are more welcome. With an eye towards the senior market, which includes many people restricting their salt intake, Gold Medal developed Flavacol RS, which stands for “reduced sodium.” The butter-flavored salt is going to be rolled out to areas with senior populations, where there is more demand for low-salt products.
In the recent past, popcorn was most often popped in coconut oil, a reliable source of heat that resists polarization under high temperatures—making popcorn preparation and cleaning much easier. Coconut oil is also 96% saturated fat, which led to its bad reputation. However, that misses a key point. Coconut oil comes from a plant, not an animal. Composed of easily digestible medium-chain triglycerides, coconut oil is now being studied for its possible health benefits. “My opinion is that it’s just a little softer on the body,” offers Todd Sunderhaus, Gold Medal’s flavor technologist. “Researchers are finding it keeps you fuller, and coconut oil is making its way into diets with weight management.” If you walk into any health-food store, you’ll see coconut oil in prominent places. Sales of the oil for the home market have grown tremendously in recent years. Still, this isn’t something those outside the health-food bubble have necessarily latched onto, in part because research is still so new.
Butter-flavored salt is an essential ingredient in movie theatre popcorn. Cretors’ version uses natural flavors and coloring. Gold Medal has a number of varieties out there, including a naturally flavored butter salt colored using riboflavin, a B vitamin. Other sources of yellow include turmeric, which needs to be combined with masking flavors, and beta carotene.
“Natural coloring is probably our biggest mainstream area of research now,” Sunderhaus reports. “We offer it in this country, but right now the natural coloring seems to be more requested in countries outside of the U.S.” Part of that arises from more stringent regulations outside of the U.S. Places like Japan and the European Union ban certain food dyes and chemicals that are allowed in the U.S.
Although organic popcorn is making its way into supermarkets, it’s unlikely to enter the commercial side of the business anytime soon. “They couldn’t supply us,” Sunderhaus says frankly. Until the organic business scales up, there is no way growers could meet demand. Consumers who have heard stories of “frankencrops” can rest easy on one account. All popcorn is non-G.M.O (genetically modified organisms), a stipulation that is written into contracts.
Though popcorn is most strongly associated with movie theatres, concession stands at every imaginable venue sell the crunchy treat. Gold Medal, for example, gets just 9% of its business from movie theatres. Many current trends in movie theatre popcorn started out in other venues. Kettle corn, for example, a lightly sweet-and-salty popcorn, first became popular around ten years ago. “Starting out west, it moved across the country at fairs and flea markets and swap meets,” Cretors’ VP of sales and marketing, Shelly Olesen, reports. Gold Medal has two products, Pop-N-Glaze and Pappy’s Kettle Corn Mix, which can make a sweet and salty corn right in a movie theatre’s popcorn kettle. Cretors sells poppers with a salt/sweet switch. Sugary kettle corn can be popped at a lower temperature in order to avoid burning.
Gourmet popcorn shops, like Dale and Thomas and Garrett, which specialize in caramel corn and flavored popcorn, have contributed to the rise in caramel corn and “shaker bars” at the movie theatre. True caramel corn requires a machine to caramelize the sugar, but Cretors introduced Maize Glaze, a way to make sweet popcorn in a regular machine, so movie theatres could easily approximate the taste of caramel corn. Shaker bars allow patrons to customize their order with flavorings like bacon, caramel or cheddar. “The more savory, heavy-body flavors, like the bacon and spices, as well as the sweet-and-salty, are gaining a lot of popularity,” Sunderhaus notes.
Beyond that, the flavors vary regionally. “Far West will pick up some of the lighter fare. Light cheddar cheese with cracked pepper is popular in California,” Sunderhaus offers. Ketchup shake-ons are a favorite in the Northeast and some foreign markets. Sunderhaus himself sprinkles the ketchup shake-on on his French fries while driving. “So I don’t make a mess,” he explains. Southwesterners love dill. For those that like spice, Gold Medal offers 5 Alarm Blazen. “It’s oil-based heat. You can use it to pop popcorn, spray it on, or add it to cheese or caramel. You can control how hot and mild and supernova you make it by how much you add.”
Restaurants have gotten into the popcorn act, serving popcorn with duck fat or truffle oil drizzled on top. The Thai condiment sriracha, which has become increasingly popular in the U.S., appears in some home recipes for popcorn. While not all these trends will make their ways to movie theatres, they often signify other movements in the marketplace, like a preference for savory, spicy, or just plain more complicated preparations of popcorn. “It’s only in the past few years that we’ve seen people taking caramel corn, adding chocolate, personalizing it that way,” Andrew Cretors, president of Cretors, observes. “Generally in the U.S., Americans enjoy popcorn and are experimenting with lots of different ways in which they can eat it.” The majority of in-theatre dining venues offer only classic popcorn with an option of real butter, but there’s room for experimentation. The Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, New York, has three popcorn options on its menu: regular, caramel corn, and their Mexican-influenced signature flavor, “lime, cojita cheese and cilantro.”
The international market brings its flavor preferences—or experimentations—with it. Though Islam prohibits eating pork, the Middle East has gone gaga for Gold Medal’s bacon-and-cheese flavoring. The pork-free product, “made up of smoked vegetable proteins and things of that nature,” according to Sunderhaus, is both kosher and halal. For Malaysia and the Pacific Rim area, Sunderhaus is also at work on a ginger flavoring.
Beyond just regional flavor preferences, different areas of the world may have different palates. “The perception I’ve come to develop is that Americans like their popcorn sweet and a lot of parts of the other world like it just slightly sweet,” Sunderhaus reflects. Charlie Cretors points out that in Germany, “you only get sugar corn. It’s what we would consider kettle corn, but they use a little more sugar than we use for our kettle corn, and no salt really.”
At Gold Medal, popcorn can be dyed and flavored to order. The two are separate, so an operator can have red popcorn that tastes like blueberry, for example. Popcorn for sporting venues is often dyed in school colors. Sunderhaus also develops custom popcorn flavors for clients, or can instruct them in putting together complicated flavors, like a butter toffee-flavored caramel corn. One of his recent creations was baklava popcorn. “A lot of our ideas come from our customers, which come from their customers,” Sunderhaus explains. “As the customer becomes more aware or requestive of the naturals, we shift our products.”
For all the innovations in the snack food industry, it’s remarkable that Americans—and the world—have held fast to the crunchy snack. As products like bacon-flavored popcorn gain in popularity, in a way the popcorn business has come full circle. After all, that isn’t so far from Cretors’ original lard-butter formula, which infused the snack with a light taste of bacon.