LINCOLN, NEB. — Conagra Brands, Inc. is funding a project at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln that is breeding popcorn varieties with higher levels of lysine, an amino acid that gives popcorn more nutritional value. Conagra, Chicago, already is testing two varieties that have nearly twice the level of lysine when compared to regular popcorn.

Dent corn is deficient in lysine, but researchers in the 1990s bred a gene variant known as opaque-2 into dent corn, which led to higher levels of two essential amino acids: lysine and tryptophan. The variety was called quality-protein maize (QPM).

David Holding, PhD, a professor in the University of Nebraska’s Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, wanted to do the same with popcorn. Initially, however, his popcorn did not pop because opaque-2 turns hard, glassy popcorn kernels into softer, chalkier kernels that resist popping. Dr. Holding’s research team then cross-bred multiple generations of the QPM dent corn with other popcorn varieties, which led to high-lysine quality protein popcorn (QPP). It pops.

“This is a product that lends itself to organic production and can be marketed as a novel popcorn variety as consumers are paying more attention to their foods’ nutritional value,” Dr. Holding said. “For popcorn breeding in general, this also shows the potential for mining other traits from dent corn into popcorn to improve the crop’s agronomic performance.”

In blind taste-testing, many QPP hybrids outperformed non-QPP varieties in taste and texture.

“When we took on this challenge, I was 50% confident that we could deliver on improvements in terms of nutrition, but at no time did I think this would lead us to a level of success that also delivered improved taste, texture and prebiotics over conventional popcorn,” Dr. Holding said.