KANSAS CITY — In the past year, popcorn has exploded into the snack market as a versatile canvas for many different snacking occasions. Popcorn can be salty, sweet, spicy or bland; it can be eaten sitting down or on-the-go; it can be flavored without other main allergens and marketed as a healthier alternative to some cookies, chips and crackers. And its popularity shows no sign of cooling.

Globally, consumer interest in snacking has grown yearly. As snacking throughout the day — versus eating three sit-down meals — gains popularity, consumers are seeking snacks that can fit different eating occasions and moving away from the idea of snacks being inherently unhealthy. Major snacking trends from 2022 that have carried into 2023 include an interest in health-and-wellness, clean label ingredients and savory options. Popcorn has emerged as a front-runner food that can fill these three categories.

According to Mondelez International, Inc.’s fourth annual State of Snacking report, 53% of consumers said they snack on crisps, popcorn and pretzels at least once weekly, a 5% increase from 2019’s survey results. Sustainability was a leading trend in the 2022 report, and 70% of respondents said they believe that plant-based snacks are better for the environment in the long run. Global research and technology company Technavio has forecasted that the “global ready-to-eat popcorn market size is estimated to increase by $5.61 billion from 2021 to 2026.”

As consumer interest in popcorn grows, companies are experimenting with bolder, more innovative flavors. Cookie and Candy Pop, a subsidiary of SNAX-Sational Brands, boasts a popcorn portfolio filled with partnerships. From Fruity Pebbles to Nutter Butter flavored popcorn, the brand has utilized a dozen different flavor combinations that all clock in at 150 calories per 30-gram serving. In popcorn weight, that’s a significant amount when compared to other sweet and salty snack options.

Just two months after selling the Pop Up popcorn brand to Grupo Apex, Grupo Bimbo SAB de CV launched a collaboration between its ready-to-eat popcorn brand Popcornopolis and spicy chip brand Takis. The hot chili pepper and lime dusted popcorn variety is available online and at select major retailers.

Earlier this month, AMC Entertainment Holdings, Inc. partnered with Walmart to expand its retail movie theater popcorn availability. Initially available only at select mall locations, AMC’s popcorn can now be purchased nationwide in both ready-to-eat and microwavable varieties.

At-home popping brand Opopop, which launched in 2021 with what it coined the world’s first pre-flavored popcorn kernels, expanded its portfolio last year with “peel and pour” microwavable cups that feature oil-based seasoning cubes to flavor kernels while they pop.

From a financial perspective, popcorn has proven to be a rewarding investment. In 2022, the Hershey Co. saw significant growth in its salty snacks sector following a first quarter that had been bogged down by supply chain, logistics and inflation issues. By the second quarter, the company was reporting double-digit growth across categories.

“Our salty snacks brands continue to deliver tremendous growth and share gains,” said Michele G. Buck, president and chief executive officer of the Hershey Co., in pre-recorded remarks ahead of a second-quarter earnings call. “Over the past 12 weeks, SkinnyPop retail sales grew 17% and share of the ready-to-eat popcorn segment increased 130 basis points to 24%. Growth is led by higher household penetration and stable buy rates as new pack sizes have enabled us to capture incremental occasions.”

Frito-Lay, a subdivision of PepsiCo, Inc., also saw gains in its salty snack category and reported in the third quarter that along with other salty snack brands, its popcorn brand Smartfood delivered double-digit net revenue growth. The company has experimented with Smartfood LTOs in recent years, collaborating with brands including Krispy Kreme and Doritos to launch new popcorn flavors.

“We use consumer preference data to develop regional and limited-edition flavor offerings, tapping into our database of 1,000-plus flavor variations,” a Frito-Lay spokesperson said. “These insights and extended research help inform when to innovate new snacks, experiment with new flavor profiles and test new and unique flavor combinations. For example, Smartfood Krispy Kreme stemmed from an enlisted panel of Gen Z consumers to help us brainstorm unexpected and playful mashups, which ultimately inspired the Krispy Kreme fusion.”

Some companies have focused more on popcorn’s nutritional potential and directed innovation toward increasing the snack’s health value. Conagra Brands, Inc. recently invested in research to increase levels of the amino acid lysine in certain corn varieties, which increases the kernels’ overall protein content. At the end of last year, IWON Organics added ready-to-eat popcorn formulated with organic coconut oil and pea protein to its high-protein snack line.

Eyeing sustainability as a main prerogative, Quinn Snacks relaunched at-home popping kernels this year with updated sourcing and packaging details. The single-origin kernels are harvested at a family farm that utilizes regenerative agriculture practices and are then packaged in 35% post-consumer recycled pouches.

The versatility of popcorn allows it to adapt to most flavor, diet and health trends, positioning it as a cross-category snack market wildcard. According to the USDA Popcorn Board, Americans eat 14 billion quarts of popcorn annually. A 2023 popcorn report from market research firm Technavio showed that in 2021, North America had the largest ready-to-eat popcorn market in the world. Judging by the category’s trajectory the past few years, it seems safe to say the future holds many more flavor and health innovations for popcorn.