Popcorn sales bursting with new organic, gourmet, pre-popped snacks

Kale, ginger, Sriracha: What's NOT in popcorn these days?

Popcorn is smokin' hot. According to the Popcorn Board, Americans consume 16 billion quarts of popped popcorn annually. That's 51 quarts each in a year. And while most of the popcorn we buy is for home use — sales of unpopped popcorn have risen 300% since 1970 — about 30% is eaten in theaters, stadiums, schools and the like.

The popcorn business is expected to explode to $1.1 billion per year, thanks to the newest wave of premium, organic popcorn: pre-popped and ready to eat.

Our love for popcorn is well founded: It is a whole grain, which, by definition, contains the germ, the bran and the endosperm (maybe that's why popcorn can be sexy; more on that later), and it delivers antioxidants, fiber, healthful oils, vitamins and minerals. Popcorn is high in fiber and, with 4 grams in every 4 cups, can help munchers reach their daily goal of 25 to 38 grams a day. Producers have gotten quite creative with flavor, which is what makes the new popcorns so much fun, but as a result the fat content varies wildly, from 4.5 grams per serving for air-popped to 10 grams per serving for conventionally popped. So check the labels.

Look for corn popped in healthful oils, such as coconut and sunflower, and make sure that the ingredients are simple: popcorn, oil, salt and a natural flavor or two. With some exceptions, stay away from microwave popcorn, which, while convenient, is usually packed with unhealthful artificial agents.

These new pops are healthier than conventional movie popcorn, and tastier too.

Snacks 101: The First Baked Popcorn: Yes, these guys believe in being direct, and the popcorn, created by Hampton Popcorn, is actually one of the best of the new bunch. The corn is indeed baked; co-owner Jeffrey Price would not reveal the secret process but said, "Baking dries the kernels — moisture is what makes them get soggy … and baking disintegrates the hulls, so you'll never get them stuck in your teeth or gut." It's popped with coconut oil and, according to the company, baking uses less oil. Flavors include sea salt, Less Mess Cheddar and Sriracha. 150 calories per serving of 2¾ cups. facebook.com/snacks101popcorn

Quinn Popcorn Kale and Sea Salt: Nothing feels healthier than a bag of crunchy kale. Now you can get it in Quinn's "farm-to-bag" Kale and Sea Salt popcorn, which uses organic freeze-dried kale and carrots for seasoning. A very cool tool on the company website lets you track your popcorn's origin by entering its batch number. (Mine came from Bluegrass Dairy and Food in Glasgow, Kan.). The brand, named for owners Kristi and Coulter Lewis' son, Quinn, uses sunflower oil or coconut oil. Says Kristi Lewis, "We really want to improve the food industry by making popcorn that's clean, simple and transparent." 140 calories per serving, 4 cups. Other flavors include cheddar and chipotle, and the company also makes microwave popcorn in compostable bags. quinnpopcorn.com

Angie's Boomchickapop: This popcorn has won awards from consumer magazines and trades alike, especially for its Sweet & Spicy flavor. Co-owners Angie and Dan Bastian started by giving bags of their home-popped kettle corn to Minnesota Vikings players and coaches at NFL training camps in their hometown of Mankato, Minn., then realized they could build a college fund for their daughter by selling it. It's popped in sunflower oil. The sea salt flavor has 150 calories per serving, which is about 4 cups. Seven flavors, including white cheddar. angiespopcorn.com

SexyPop: It might be hard to figure just how popcorn can be sexy (must be all that endosperm), but this corn is delicious nonetheless. Founded by snack genius Robert Erhlich (creator of Pirate's Booty) and built on a "foundation of love and humor," the company encourages consumers to "come out of your shell and be confident." The Brazilian Coconut flavor is to die for, and the five others, which include Bangin' Cheddar and French Butter, are not bad either. Brazilian Coconut is 140 calories for a 3½-cup serving. sexypop.us

Clean, Lean and Savvy Certainly one of the leanest at 4.5 grams of fat per 1.25-cup serving, this air-popped popcorn was created by Clean, Lean and Savvy health coach Suzie Carpenter. While coping with her daughter's celiac disease and other food intolerances, Carpenter discovered that her own health struggles could be profoundly improved by diet. So she began creating foods free of gluten, sugar, dairy, soy and other trigger foods; she also graduated from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City. Popped in sunflower oil. One hundred calories per 3 cups. cleanleansavvy.com

Tiny but Mighty Popcorn Iowa famers Gene and Lynn Mealhow and their sons have been working for 20 years to preserve and improve an ancient heirloom variety of Native American popping corn that somehow found its way into the family in the 1850s. Tiny but Mighty Popcorn is a rare, small kernel that grows on 3-inch ears and pops into a virtually hulless, crisp and densely flavored snack. Voila! No hulls to stick in your teeth. Flavors include a yummy white cheddar that is 110 calories per 1-cup serving. TBMpopcorn.com

Pop! Gourmet Popcorn: Talk about fancy: Pop! has teamed with Wakaya Perfection to produce Pink Fijian Ginger popcorn. The ginger comes from an organic crop that's hand-cultivated on the private island of Wakaya in Fiji. The kosher sea salt is drawn from the jade-green waters of Wakaya and dried in the sun right on the beach. Most decadent is the Ginger, Sea Salt & Caramel flavor, made with melt-in-your-mouth butter and brown sugar. Wakaya has 140 calories in 2 cups, and every bite is worth it. Two additional flavors include Smoky BBQ and Northwest Cheddar and Chocolate Caramel with Sea Salt. popgourmetpopcorn.com

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Perfectly popped popcorn, and a few flavors to try

Something about the sound of corn popping really kicks movie night into gear. Here's how to perfect your at-home popping technique and make your own flavored popcorn:

Use a Dutch oven or any heavy, lidded pot with high sides. Heat two to three tablespoons of a "high smoke point" oil, such as coconut, macadamia nut (both add great flavor), canola, grapeseed, sunflower or safflower. Avoid olive oil, but you can also experiment with ghee, clarified butter that actually has a high smoke point too. Put in a couple of test kernels and heat to medium-high. When the test kernels pop, remove the pot from heat and put in about 2/3 cup of popcorn kernels, just enough to coat the bottom in a single layer. Do not put in too much. Return the pot to the heat and pop for about 3 minutes, and shake it only when the popcorn is popping vigorously. A common mistake is to shake it constantly, which doesn't allow the kernels to stay in contact with the oil and hot pan. When popping stops, take the pot off the heat.

To flavor it, try butter and salt (duh), truffle oil, nutritional yeast, grated Parmesan, fresh or dried rosemary or curry powder.

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