How to make popcorn healthier

by Laurie Gorton
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Americans love popcorn. It’s probably the whole grain they consume the most. For many, it’s the only whole grain they eat. But the health benefits of whole grains can be complicated by the oils needed for peak microwave popping and flavor performance.

Ever since its invention, microwave popcorn relied on hydrogenated shortenings to carry oil-soluble flavors in a shelf-stable matrix. Yet such shortenings also contained trans fats. To replace hydrogenated fats, many popcorn manufacturers turned to palm oil, but that change increased the levels of saturated fats.

Weaver Popcorn Co., Inc., Van Buren, IN, wanted something healthier.

The family-owned-and-operated company, which handles about 30% of the world’s popcorn, adopted Omega-9 canola oil for its Pop Weaver brand and earned the first American Heart Association Health Check logo in the popcorn category. The change in oils also cut calories by 35% and fat by 50%.

Weaver Popcorn collaborated with Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis, IN, the company that developed Omega-9 canola oil based on its Nexera line. The popcorn manufacturer required that any new oil had to provide great taste, healthy profile and superior performance.

“With most healthy snacks, you typically have to give up flavor, but our new microwave popcorn really is the best of all worlds,” said Mike Weaver, president and CEO. “Delivering the same great taste, but with healthier ingredients, is the type of innovation our customers expect from Pop Weaver.”

Weaver Popcorn emphasizes “Flavor First” in its product development approach, so conveying the rich, buttery taste for which Pop Weaver is known was a critical benchmark. In internal tests, evaluators perceived the new formula to have significantly better butter flavor than not only the current product but also competitive products. Consumer tests took place across the country with similar comments. The improved formulation entirely replaced the existing product line, offering healthier versions of the company’s signature flavors: Butter, Extra Butter and Light Butter.

Chris Williams, R&D leader for Weaver Popcorn, named other benefits from the change. “Because the oil is low in viscosity, it doesn’t adhere to the bag,” he said. “Less can go farther.” Also, Omega-9 canola oil has a lower melting point than palm or soybean oil, so it spreads the butter flavor more evenly throughout the whole bag of popcorn. “The butter flavor really comes through.”
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