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Whole grain and gluten-free, which are two desirable traits in packaged foods, are inherent to popcorn. And for the most part, compared to other crunchy snack foods, popcorn has fewer calories and less fat per serving, which appeals to today’s health-conscious consumer.

Popcorn is also a better source of antioxidants than either fruits or vegetables, said Joe Vinson, a chemistry professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and a leader in analyzing the healthful components of food. His research shows that the polyphenols in popcorn are more concentrated than they are in many fruits and vegetables, which are often more than 90% water, whereas popcorn averages only about 4% water. Also, the hulls of the popcorn — the part of the kernel that tends to get caught in the teeth — tend to have the highest concentration of polyphenols and fiber.

Popcorn may very easily turn into an unhealthful snack when it is slathered in butter, oil, and other fat- and calorie-laden ingredients. But regardless, it still is whole grain and gluten-free, even if it is drizzled in chocolate or seasoned with truffles. Its inherent nutrition provides consumers with permission to indulge. It’s no wonder that the Sterling-Rice Group, Boulder, Colo., predicted popcorn would be “the” snack of 2013.

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Bold and beautiful

“We believe that people are turning to snacks more as meal replacements with a focus on health,” said Virginia Stout, marketing and brand associate for 479° Popcorn, San Francisco. “As a result, healthy, low-calorie snacks such as popcorn are a great alternative to the other snack options on the market.”

Some recent ready-to-eat (R.-T.-E.) popcorn innovations from 479° Popcorn include chipotle, caramel and pumpkin seeds; and butter, herbs and toasted coconut caramel.

Eric Girard, vice-president of sales and marketing for J.G. Van Holten and Sons, Inc., Waterloo, Wis., said, “Popcorn is great for delivering new and unique flavors. From spicy to sweet, popcorn takes on flavor better than any salty snack.”

Known for its convenient Pickle-in-a-Pouch product, Van Holten’s recently entered the R.-T.-E. popcorn category with Dill Pickle Popcorn.

“Movie theater managers told us that customers were pouring the juice from our pickles onto popcorn while watching movies,” Mr. Girard said. “It’s a great flavor, but soggy popcorn isn’t so great. A lot of tinkering led us to create a powdered version of our liquid flavor enabling consumers to enjoy the dill pickle flavor on popcorn without the soggy mess.

“Getting the right amount of flavoring was tough. Too much causes you to pucker and without enough, the pickle flavor does not stand out. Ultimately finding the right popcorn and popping process helped make it happen.”

Mihir Shah, founder of Dishoom Foods Inc., Chicago, agrees that popcorn is versatile in that it may be flavored in so many different ways.

“We have very unique flavors and spice combinations in our Cobra Corn brand of popcorns, flavors many people haven’t heard of or associate with popcorn,” he said. “Our tagline is ‘bold flavors for adventurous souls.’ We use real spices that have recognized health benefits and our products are targeted to progressive, exploratory, health-conscious, educated and epicurean adults.”

Cobra Corn Mumbai Masala is spicy popcorn flavored with a family recipe that combines 10 Indian spices. Cobra Corn Chai Caramel is coated with caramel that is infused with tea and sweet aromatic spices.

“Creating this flavor was quite a task since we don’t use corn syrup or butter in our caramel and those ingredients are in most other caramels,” Mr. Shah said. “Like our other popcorns, we wanted to keep this one vegan. We also wanted to use real tea for its earthy flavor and recognized health benefits.”

And here’s one where you get real peppers in every handful. Greg (B.A.) Anders’ Fire Corn Popcorn, produced in partnership with Pop! Gourmet Popcorn L.L.C., Kent, Wash., won the Most Innovative New Product Award in the savory category at the 2013 Sweets and Snacks Expo held in Chicago at the end of May. Mr. Anders is a retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who wanted to share the Air Force’s tradition of debriefing after flights over beers and fire corn, which is fresh popcorn combined with slow-fired, crispy jalapeño slices.

Pop! Gourmet Popcorn also manufactures a namesake brand of ultra-premium popcorns in varieties such as chocolate salted caramel and white truffle. The newest flavors are made through co-branding agreements. There’s Rogue Blue made with blue cheese from Rogue Creamery, Central Point, Ore., and butter toffee made with Almond Roca Buttercrunch from Brown & Haley Co., Tacoma, Wash. The company is in the process of introducing lighter versions of a number of its premium flavors under the brand name of Pop! Lite.

“Popcorn snacks have not seen any real innovation in the past couple decades,” said Sachin Ajith, vice-president of product development at POP! Gourmet Popcorn. “Our focus is on exclusive partnerships with high-end brands to create flavors that are familiar to consumers but do not exist in the market.

“The Rogue Blue product took about a year to develop. To get the perfect blue cheese taste, we partnered with the creamery to dehydrate blue cheese into a powder, later realizing that we only get a 10% yield because of the moisture in the cheese. For every 8,000 lbs of award-winning cheese, we had a net of 800 lbs of powder.”

Most recently the company partnered with Seattle chef Tom Douglas, who is known for his line of Rub with Love spice rubs. The rubs are now being tossed with popcorn to make creations such as American Peri Peri, Chinese 12 Spice, and Smoky BBQ and Northwest Cheddar.

New forms and the future

There’s no doubt better-for-you snack options are driving innovation and sales in the snack category.

“Customers are looking for healthier, more interesting options as they snack more,” said Karen Bradley, chief executive officer of Open Road Snacks, formerly Rocky Mountain Popcorn, Centennial, Colo. “Popcorn is definitely perceived as a healthier, more interesting option to more traditional snacks such as potato chips and pretzels.”

The company is introducing a new popcorn format this month called Poplets. Created with patent-pending technology, Poplets are toasted corn centers that are available in three flavors: Asiago ranch, chile picante and sea salt and butter.

Stacey Donahue, vice-president of marketing for Halfpops L.L.C., Woodinville, Wash., said people are tired of the same old salty snacks.

“This was the motivation behind trying to make popcorn different,” she said. “We all loved the crunchy nuggets at the bottom of the bowl and wanted to figure a way to have an entire bowl filled with our favorite part of popcorn. The team tried for several years not only to create a perfectly half-popped kernel of popcorn but also adjusted the ingredients so we have just the right amount of seasoning. This took a lot of trial and error to get just the perfect balance.”

Halfpops currently come in two flavors: natural butter and sea salt, and white cheddar.

“We will soon be launching some fun flavors that both kids and adults have helped us develop in our test kitchens,” Ms. Donahue said.

So what does the future hold for popcorn?

“We believe the popcorn category will continue to grow and manufacturers will continue to innovate,” Ms. Bradley said. “However, only those with a unique selling proposition and good-eating, solid-flavor profiles will have staying power for years to come.”

Mr. Girard added, “There is a low barrier to entry in the popcorn business and as the popularity of popcorn grows, so will the number of brands and flavors. There are a lot of generic, inexpensive popcorn bags filling stores. To stand out, your popcorn has to be unique and of high quality.”

If current sales are any indication, the outlook is fantastic for the popcorn category.

“The premium popcorn category alone is estimated to reach more than $1 billion within the next five years,” Mr. Ajith said. “People are showing a willingness to spend money on high-quality, innovative and delicious snacks that are different from the traditional, high-fat, artificial products of the past.”