A popcorn transformation

by Eric Schroeder
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Bold flavors are heating up in the popcorn category.

NEW YORK — The transformation taking place in the popcorn category was one of five topical issues discussed in the latest “Talking Points” report issued by Rabobank.

In the report, Nicholas Fereday, executive director, senior analyst — food and consumer trends, Food & Agribusiness Research and Advisory, Rabobank, said popcorn “has burst back to life.” The driver? Not microwave popcorn or popcorn consumed at the movie theater, but rather ready-to-eat popcorn.

Citing data from Chicago-based Information Resources, Inc. (I.R.I.) and estimates from Rabobank, Mr. Fereday said R.-T.-E. popcorn sales have grown by more than 60% since 2012, to over $750 million in 2014.

In the report Mr. Fereday identified five takeaways from the reformation that players along the food chain may benefit from. They are:

• Back to the future — “Tired brands and off-trend categories” should take a cue from the turnaround in popcorn, Mr. Fereday said. “What was once considered unhealthy and junk food has been transformed into millennial friendly, cool and healthy,” he said. “Equally important it reminds us of what we call The Iron Law of Consumption: convenience trumps everything, even (gasp!) fresh.”

• While you were sleeping — Mr. Fereday said the major popcorn players “have been caught napping.” As a result, small innovative companies have been the most successful in the R.-T.-E. popcorn category. “The major players can still get involved, but like a baby boomer’s pension plan, it is never too late to invest, but they will have to work twice as hard to catch up,” he said.

• The usual suspects — Mr. Fereday said the category has taken full advantage of recent trends, including natural, organic and gluten-free.

• Some like it hot — “As consumers’ palates grow increasingly adventurous for bolder flavors, often inspired from ethnic cuisines, the potential for this new popcorn platform is enormous,” he said. Sriracha was mentioned as an example of one such flavor.

• Field of dreams — Mr. Fereday stressed that the popcorn opportunity runs along the whole food chain. For example, on the farm, popcorn may be the next high value crop for farmers frustrated by low margins and volatile commodity markets, he said. “There is a whole world of heirloom popcorn varieties to rediscover and bring to the attention of millennials craving for food that resonates with their interpretation of artisanal and authenticity,” he said.
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