Euromonitor International’s recently published nutrition data show that among all the snack categories, sweet and savory snacks contributes the most to fat purchased globally and is second only to biscuits in terms of per capita energy contribution. With 146 Cal of energy purchased per capita per day, North Americans take by far the most calories from sweet and savory snacks. This is five times the global average and 10 times higher than Asia Pacific’s per capita daily calorie purchase. In order to curb the skyrocketing levels of fat and carbohydrates, sweet and savory manufacturers are coming up with healthier products touting low calories and no trans fats or cholesterol. The popcorn market has been flooded with these healthy launches. However, the question remains: Are these guilt-free variants really lower in calories than their mass market counterparts?


Healthy underlies popcorn boom

North America is not only the world’s largest region for popcorn sales, it is also the biggest contributor to global growth in the category. The majority of this growth comes from ready-to-eat variants, which benefit from their healthier positioning of being either lower in fat and/or having more natural and fewer ingredients. With US$2.6 billion in retail sales, the US alone accounted for almost 60% of the global popcorn sales in 2014, and 36% of global popcorn growth over 2009-14, quadruple that of Western Europe. In Canada, the world’s fifth largest market by value size, popcorn sales have risen rapidly over the last few years, growing at a CAGR of 8% over 2009-14, outpacing the overall sweet and savory snacks CAGR of 4%.


Skinny Pop not so skinny?

Skinny Pop is perhaps the most popular and well-known low-calorie brand in the US. The company, which bears the same name as the brand, was the fastest growing company in sweet and savory snacks in 2014, with 39% value sales growth in the year. This growth prompted the snack giant PepsiCo, Purchase, New York, US, to introduce its own low-calorie version, Smartfood Popcorn, which is approximately equivalent in calorie content to Skinny Pop and Boom Chicka Pop, another low-calorie popcorn.

The brand owes it success to its health focus, capitalizing on its free-from and low-calorie positioning. However, according to Euromonitor International’s nutrition data, the low-calorie Skinny Pop is one of the most calorie-rich brands in the US, boasting more calories and fat than private label brands like Wal-Mart or mainstream variants like Crunch ‘n’ Munch.

Similarly, Special K Popcorn Chips launched by Kellogg Canada in 2014 as a gluten-free low calorie hybrid crisp boasts 400 Cal per 100 g, which is about 100 Cal more than the Odeon Popcorn, the typical cinema popcorn in the UK, and 80 Cal above that of Act II, a microwavable product that emphasizes its bold, indulgent flavors.

However, compared to other sweet and savory snacks brands, like Fritos Scoops tortilla chips or Lay’s crisps, Skinny Popcorn has fewer calories, though in terms of carbohydrates they are more or less comparable. The fact that the brand promotes 39 Cal per cup on its packaging with the per serving (28 g) calories amounting to 150 Cal might help explain Skinny Pop’s surging sales, as it successfully taps into the portion control trend. Moreover, as we have commented previously, when it comes to snacks, stealth reduction could be more appropriate for consumers than fat or salt reduction.


Popcorn sales in North America have soared over the last few years, with start-ups emerging left and right. Most of the new launches have been skewing the category towards the natural market through non-GMO, no artificial ingredients, or low-calorie and low-fat types. However, the majority of the popular brands which are marketed on low-calorie credentials have more carbohydrates and fat than some mainstream brands that do not boast any health positioning. Popcorn is not alone. Belvita biscuits, which is marketed as a nutritious and healthy breakfast alternative by Mondelez, has more sugar than mass-market brands like Hovis, Lyons and even Morrison’s private label line, but thanks to its clever communication the product has managed to appeal to weight conscious consumers, with sales growing in double digits since its launch in 2010. It seems in the majority of cases, innovation in communication and marketing is more important than the actual innovation in product formulation.

For further insight please contact Pinar Hosafci, food analyst at Euromonitor International,