Slideshow: Pandemic fuels popcorn innovation

CHICAGO – Cheetos Popcorn, a brand of Frito-Lay North America Inc., a division of PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, NY, achieved the No. 7 spot on the 2020 New Product Pacesetters list from IRI, Chicago. The annual report recognizes top new product launches.

Introduced at the beginning of 2020 prior to the pandemic, Cheetos Popcorn could not have come at a more opportune time to provide comfort and a little bit of fun during the trying times of the year. The product delivers the taste of the Cheetos seasoning to one of America’s snacking favorites, swapping the butter and salt for cheesy and spicy flavors. Available in two varieties — Cheddar and Flamin’ Hot — Cheetos Popcorn left consumers with red- and orange-dusted fingers, like a badge of honor, something to talk about and post on social media.

The immediate success of Cheetos Popcorn fueled further innovation this past year in North America, the largest market for popcorn globally, where the concept of healthful snacking had retail sales in the United States grow by more than 32% since 2012, according to Mordor Intelligence. Much of the growth is attributed to the double-digit growth rate associated with ready-to-eat (RTE) popcorn.

Popcorn also has become a trending flavor in other categories, everything from ice cream to confectionery. In fact, some recent launches featuring popcorn as a base with sweet and savory toppings are merchandised in the candy aisle of retailers rather than with salty snacks, blurring category lines.

The RTE popcorn/caramel corn category is expected to surpass $1.6 billion this year, based on IRI data. Smartfoods, another PepsiCo brand, is the leader in the category, followed by Skinnypop, a business of Hershey Co., Hershey, Pa., then Angie’s Boomchickapop, Chicago.

The microwave popcorn category may hit the $900 million mark by the end of this year, with Conagra Brands, Chicago, controlling more than half of the category. Both convenience formats, as well as plain kernels, boomed during the pandemic because of increased in-home snacking along with a rise in home-streaming entertainment.

Adding seasonings to microwave popcorn before it’s popped is challenging because the topicals may easily burn. Flavors were historically limited to butter, cheese and salt, and were accomplished through the addition of extracts to the fat component. Innovators such as Brown Bag Unlimited LLC, Naples, Fla., are changing the status quo with Nature’s Crush Popcorn, a line of microwavable popcorns containing real crushed herbs and spices.

“It is incredible to see what started out as my Italian grandmother’s recipe for herb-filled stovetop popcorn come to life as a revolutionary innovation to be shared with popcorn lovers around the world,” said Barry Connor, co-owner.

Adding seasonings, sweet drizzles and other extras to RTE popcorn is much easier, and this past year, innovations have been plentiful. From sweet to savory and spicy to tangy, there’s something for everyone. Popcorn, a whole grain and a source of fiber, serves as the perfect delivery vehicle to satisfy cravings. It gives consumers permission to indulge.

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