Bring on the popcorn researchers

While you sleep at night you can rest assured that somewhere out there, in a laboratory at a major U.S. University, some of America’s best and brightest scientists are working overtime to uncover the secrets ofpopcorn popability.

If popability strikes you as trivial then you’re probably not an executive for a company that produces microwave popcorn. This niche in the food industry accounts for more than $1 billion in yearly sales in the U.S. alone. But after two decades of steady expansion, microwave popcorn sales have started slipping. The solution? Improve popability.

Bring on the popcorn researchers.

A study from Perdue University rated the popability of 14 different varieties of yellow popcorn by determining the size of popped kernels and percentage of unpopped kernels. An ideal expansion ratio from unpopped kernel to popped kernel is around 1:37. But there are some super-popper hybrids out there that will pop up to a size that’s more than 40 times the original size.

The Perdue trial determined that the best popability resulted in only four percent of the kernels going unpopped. The worst: nearly half the bag went unpopped. That’s some poor-performing popcorn right there.

The researchers concluded that it’s all about the pericarp, the soft starch under the hard shell of the kernel. When the kernel is heated, moisture inside the pericarp expands, causing the kernel to explode. When the molecules in the pericarp are composed of what the researchers call a “more highly ordered crystalline arrangement,” moisture is held in place more securely and maximum popability is achieved.

The Purdue team has only taken the first step. Now it’s up to other researchers to embrace the cause and devise breeding techniques or perhaps even (I bet you saw this one coming) genetic engineering to create the ideal pericarp. But that may take from three to five years or more.

In the meantime, while we enjoy our movies and ballgames, we’ll just have to struggle along with less than perfect pericarps.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute


“Food Chemists Identify Organic Structure for Maximum ‘Pop’ in Popcorn” Food Navigator USA, 4/15/05,